by Ursula K. Le Guin
It can be just as fast and easy to order an ebook from the library as to buy it online, and it costs nothing. Why would anyone buy an ebook from the publisher if the library has it for free?
So why would a publisher sell ebooks to libraries?
This is a legitimate, big problem, which affects authors just as much and as directly as it does libraries and publishers. It has no quick fix. To solve it will take a complete and painful rethinking and re-organisation of the whole publishing industry.
But many corporate publishers, without seeking a long-term strategy, consulting no interest or value but their own, have reacted with mere panic greed.
Some, exhibiting all the foresight, generosity, and public spirit of a Florida alligator, outright refuse to sell their ebooks to libraries. Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan are among them.
This policy can be summed up as: Libraries can go to hell.
Other publishers, perhaps hoping to keep some appearance of a certain degree of goodwill towards men, limit themselves to making it hard for the library to stock ebooks and inconvenient for you to get them from the library. They call it “inserting friction.” A kind of anti-Vaseline.
Currently various publishers are employing various forms of “friction:”
- “Embargo” (some publishers call it “Windowing”): the publisher refuses libraries access to recently published ebooks, especially best sellers. The library must wait as long as 18 months to get the book.
- Snatch-back: Instead of selling an ebook to the library, the publisher rents it for a certain length of time or a certain number of uses — after which the ebook vanishes, pouf! The library must pay for it all over again.Harper Collins sells an ebook to a library for 26 individual uses, then the book vanishes and the library is forced to purchase another.
- Selective price-gouging: The publisher charges libraries more than other customers for best-sellers.Random House announced in March that it was increasing the cost of ebooks to libraries, in some cases tripling it.
- Pay-on-Demand: Require the library to pay the publisher a sum each time the ebook is ordered.This is an ironic reversal of the system obtaining in Europe whereby the author is paid a small sum every time the book is taken out of a library. European libraries can do this because their evil nanny governments support them with money. No American public library could afford this kind of pay-on-demand either to the author or the publisher.
And the absurdest piece of meanness yet:
- Make the Old Lady Hobble Downtown: Every library that can afford to gives patrons access to music, audio books, databases, etc. via their home computer, but some publishers want libraries to allow access to ebooks only to patrons who actually, physically, come to the library. You have to be there in person and hold out your hand, see, so the librarian can put those valuable electrons in it.
But, but, but — libraries have always offered their books for free. So, how come print publishers didn’t refuse to sell books to libraries? Why didn’t they didn’t “insert friction”?
Well, partly because many publishers had a sense of responsibility, or at least a degree of shame. But also because they were aware that library circulation is more likely to increase book sales than to cut into them.
Every time a library buys a book, the publisher is more likely to sell that author’s books. Library Journal conducted a survey in 2011 about the buying habits of library users; more than half reported that they’d bought books by an author whose book they’d read in the library. As Library Journal says, “The public library is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market.” And, talking to the Christian Science Monitor, Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association, reported “Some libraries have a ‘buy it now’ button for people who don’t want to wait [for an e-book from a library, or don’t want it to suddenly disappear from their reader]. We’re doing a lot, frankly, to drive people to buy.”
But damn the facts, full speed ahead! The part of the publishing industry controlled by corporations for immediate profit is determined to see public libraries as competitors — even if they lose profits by doing so.
For a long time most Americans agreed on the importance of the free public library to the well-being of the community and the country. A publisher then would hesitate to be seen deliberately making things hard for libraries. But reactionary ideology has weakened the idea of community; muddy thinking has convinced people that information on the Internet is free; and libraries are being conveniently misrepresented as mere outmoded warehouses for print books. Readers may assume that libraries don’t and won’t buy and circulate ebooks.
In fact, despite the expense of constantly changing technologies, the non-support of voters bleating anti-tax mantras, and the aggressive tactics of corporate publishers, the great public libraries have kept abreast with the electronic age, and they very much want to buy and circulate free ebooks.
Since corporations don’t consider human rights or needs, only corporate profits, they feel free to use tactics that infringe, ignore, or flout the rights of readers. They are in fact practicing commercial censorship. They are keeping books from us.
If the part libraries play in distributing ebooks gets “frictioned” into insignificance, it will be easier for the corporations to take further control of what ebooks you personally can obtain, how long a book will stay on your reader before you have to pay for it again, and whatever else they want to control. If they see profit in doing any of this, they’ll do it. If small publishers try to sell the books they don’t sell, the big corporations will eliminate the small publishers.
At this point, the U.S. Government shows very little promise of exerting any kind of intelligent control over predatory publishing corporations, and the Department of Justice even seems to be colluding with them.
Libraries are essential because they keep permanent collections — even of unpopular books, even of impermanent, seemingly valueless items — a samizdat from 1940, a newspaper from 1933. Ebooks, including self-published ebooks, would become part of permanent library collections, which could then join the worldwide network of electronic libraries.
The existence or disappearance of a library’s permanent collection isn’t a sexy issue. But it’s absolutely basic to access to information and to the continuity of human knowledge.
If ebooks largely replace printed books, and the public libraries are decimated or eliminated as a permanent resource open to everybody, we may be able to access books only through the corporations. It will not be easy to get a book the corporations have decided is unprofitable, outdated, unnecessary, or unpleasing; it may be very difficult to find out whether a text has been cut or tampered with; there may be no way to know that a book ever existed…. The importance of free, independent electronic libraries, such as Project Gutenberg, is inestimable.
We’d be wise to keep our information base as broad as possible, by supporting the existing public libraries in their heroic and amazingly successful effort to carry on their job in the electronic age.
The goal of the public library has been to give anyone who needs or wants it permanent, unlimited, free access to books. All books.
The goal of the public library in the electronic age is what it always was: to give permanent, unlimited, free access to books — print books, ebooks, all books — to everyone.
Is that worth supporting, or what?
Many thanks to Vailey Oehlke, Director of the Multnomah County Library, for fact-checking, facts, and references.
A useful link: