February 14, 2012

Penguin seen more clearly as trying to thwart Amazon, but anger and conspiracy theories continue


Anger at Penguin for pulling its new ebooks from distribution by the country’s main distributor to libraries continued to mount yesterday, despite the revelation that the move may have been prompted by Penguin’s learning that the distributor, OverDrive, was distributing its ebooks to Amazon for circulation via the  Kindle Lending Library (see yesterday’s MobyLives report).

Last Friday, in a prescient Library Journal reportMichael Kelley clarified Penguin’s uneasiness about the Amazon – OverDrive connection, noting that the Authors Guild was equally uneasy about it:

Penguin and other publishers are uncomfortable with OverDrive allowing Amazon to handle Kindle checkouts via Amazon’s servers.

When Penguin first began limiting library lending in November, it said it had “informed suppliers to libraries that it expected them to abide by existing agreements to offer older digital titles to libraries only if those files were held behind the firewalls of the suppliers.” In other words, Penguin was comfortable with OverDrive, with whom it had contracted, executing the checkout, but not Amazon, with whom Penguin had not.

Publishers are not happy about not having a say in how this supply chain is put together.

“It’s really hard to overstate the impact of Amazon’s particular deal with OverDrive and the shock wave that sent through the industry,” said Paul Aiken, the executive director of The Authors Guild. “The notion that public libraries, for the first time, would be sending their patrons to a commercial website for borrowing books — and not just any commercial website but the website of the entity that has a tight grip on the online marketplace for books — was bound to get a negative reaction,” he said.

Aiken said OverDrive’s deal with Amazon gives the latter an unfair competitive advantage that bypasses other ebook vendors and bookstores, and it gives Amazon monetization opportunities that others are denied. But he said libraries were innocent bystanders.

“It’s awful that libraries are being put in this position,” Aiken said. “Accessibility is mightily important to authors. They want readers. But it’s a complex situation and everyone’s trying to figure out their place in this,” he said.

Nonetheless, librarians continued to direct their anger at Penguin yesterday.

In a powerful and biting commentary at Publishers Weekly, Peter Brantley, the Executive Director for the Digital Library Federation, says that “hearing that Penguin, one of the six largest publishers in the United States, was willing to make libraries collateral damage in a skirmish they hadn’t chose” has left a lot of librarians “feeling markedly less charitable about large publishers.” He closed ominously:  ”To those who would deny our access to books solely out of their fear: beware, for we are measuring our loss.”

Science librarian John Dupuis, head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University in Toronto, wasn’t very sympathetic to Penguin, either, in a commentary on the Confessions of a Science Librarian blog:

I was really angry riding home on the bus last Friday night … It was the growing tendency of publishers of all sorts to try and take their works out of the public cultural commons and place them exclusively behind pay walls. It’s their desire to monetize every reading transaction that had me hot under the collar … Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?

He goes on to compare “Both Penguin and the RWA” — the Research Works Act — saying both “are cases of legacy industries protecting rapidly crumbling business models in the face of rapid technological change.”

Meanwhile, other, less-likely theories about Penguin’s motivation circulated — an article at Extreme Tech posited the theory that Barnes & Noble had threatened Penguin into pulling its books from OverDrive, saying …

… Barnes & Noble has a history of imposing restrictions of its own over what it sees as preferential treatment. In October, when DC Comics announced an exclusive deal to offer e-book versions of popular comics via Kindle, B&N retaliated by pulling 100 DC graphic novels from store shelves. There are rumors that Penguin’s retreat from the e-book market was caused by Barnes & Noble taking a similar stand as it did with DC and threatening to pull Penguin titles off store shelves if the company didn’t capitulate.

And the topic was a hot one on Twitter, where one commentator, Adrian Streather @Grimmenstein, struck a reminder of how fraught this discussion is for all sides when he tweeted our article from yesterday with the warning, “Libraries need to be very careful. If eBook lending takes hold how many physical library locations can be dismantled?”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives