September 3, 2013

Should libraries get an ebook discount?


In “Libraries and Ebooks,” posted in Locus Online yesterday, author and blgger Cory Doctorow argued that publishers should find a better model for selling ebooks to libraries. He spoke with American Library Association strategists this summer and believes the industry needs to cut libraries a break.

Doctorow says publishers should set lower prices for libraries, who pay as much as five times the regular ebook price to keep digital copies available to their patrons. He also thinks they should not be protected by DRM, since libraries must invest in expensive software to make sure only one customer checks out each digital copy of a book at a time. (The author has spoken and written about his opposition to DRM many times before.)

He calls out HarperCollins for making libraries discard digital copies from this imprint after twenty-six uses, a number chosen “as having some parallel to the fact that many library books eventually disintegrate and have to be discarded. But this is both wrong and perverse.”

But beyond the factual problems with a 26-circ cap, there is the fundamental perversity of celebrating and importing the limitations of physical media into the digital world. It’s like insisting that electric bulbs be limited to outputting no more than one lumen of light, since that’s all a comparably-sized candle would manage. The fact that books don’t last forever is not a feature to be preserved through the digital transition: it’s a bug, and the sooner we eliminate it, the better.

Digital copies cannot be resold at book sales either, though the piece doesn’t mention how much libraries make on used copies each year. (Small libraries might make a few thousand dollars, though places like the San Francisco Public Library can make hundreds of thousands during its annual big book sale, according to an article from 2008 by InfoToday.)

Doctorow suggests that publishers are competing with libraries rather than working with them cooperatively, even bringing the issue of ebooks to a larger conversation about publishers’ relationship with Amazon:

When Amazon sells an e-book, it gets mountains of business intelligence from the transaction: who is buying, where, from which keywords, and with what other books (for starters). What does the publisher get? An aggregate sales figure, 90 days after the fact. Of course Amazon is running circles around the Big Five publishers: the publishers know nothing about their customers, and Amazon knows everything about them.

The solution in Doctorow’s mind is a trade: libraries could provide publishers with daily circulation figures, and publishers could give them ebook discounts, as well as software that will help libraries manage their ebook catalogues. He thinks there would be a way to provide publishers with new data without violating the privacy of individual patrons, though he leaves it up to librarians to figure out how that is possible. (We’ve written about who should get the data from your book purchase before.)

I doubt publishers would contest that libraries “do good” for the book world, providing recommendations for their patrons and hosting author events for their communities. But are libraries feasibly able to invest in presenting data to help publishers compete with Amazon? Are publishers going to invest in new software for libraries after losing $166 million in the DoJ case? What is the most efficient way to limit loans in a library’s digital collection?


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.