October 3, 2012

The library ebook debate: ALA vs AAP


A meeting with ALA president Maureen Sullivan and the Digital Content & Libraries Working Group was held with publishers at the AAP office on 5th Ave in New York.

Last week the AAP hosted a meeting with ALA president Maureen Sullivan and her Digital Content & Libraries Working Group. The mood in the room was a little tense.

A few days earlier, Sullivan had issued an open letter to publishers, expressing frustration that Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin did not provide access to their e-books in U.S. libraries (since that letter, Penguin has announced a deal with 3M Cloud Library to provide ebooks to libraries that is expected to roll out by the end of this year).

The publishers’ positions are diverse: Random House has nearly tripled its e-book prices for libraries, Hachette has increased prices as well, and HarperCollins has a 26-lend limit on e-books. Macmillan is reportedly on the verge of announcing an ebook test model, which would leave Simon & Schuster as the only publisher who doesn’t provide ebook access for libraries.

The publishers responded to the ALA’s open letter with a letter of their own explaining that the problem of ebook lending will take time to work out because the issue is so new and complex and because publishers cannot meet to set one system due to anti-trust restrictions.

In her talk at the AAP event, Sullivan explained that her open letter was prompted by the fact that librarian “patience is running out” and the rage of her constituency had gotten to a point where she had to speak up. This prompted mumbling in the audience to ask each other what would happen if librarian frustration increased to a breaking point again.

When the floor was opened for questions, Tim McCall, vice president of online sales and marketing, digital sales at Penguin expressed concern that the ALA’s open letter included this line (italics added for emphasis):

The library community demands meaningful change and creative solutions that serve libraries and our readers who rightfully expect the same access to ebooks as they have to printed books.

He took issue with the idea that print and ebook access should be considered the same in terms of pricing models and usage. Maureen Sullivan answered that the ALA is interested in coming up with a solution that offers “equitable access at a reasonable price.” But what that means exactly is yet to be determined. In a document that the ALA Digital Content & Libraries Working Group released on August 8th of this year, various options and models are discussed, but concrete conclusions or guidelines are not drawn.

This was the main issue that Peter Balis, Wiley’s Director of Digital Content Sales (who has claimed that he has “not read a print book since 2008”) addressed when he spoke. Because big six publishers cannot meet and discuss pricing issues, he emphasized that models and guidelines for ebooks in libraries must come from the ALA. “We need best practices around digital issues and potential scenarios … you need to be proactive,” he said. “I challenge you to help us understand what libraries are and what the space is becoming.”

The members of the ALA said they accept the challenge.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.