Monday, May 20, 2013

The robustness of e-lending

Author Ursula K. Le Guin put up a short post this morning about e-book lending that should get some attention. 
While most small presses sell all their books freely and happily to libraries, the “Big Five” publishers continue to be terrified by the idea of letting public libraries have their e-books, and to punish libraries for even trying to get their e-books to customers.
Public libraries are facing challenges similar to those seen in journalism with regard to new media. Digitization should be making information cheaper and more accessible to more people now than at any time in human history.  But thanks to greedy gatekeepers like the "Big 5" (Really, "Big 6" Le Guin leaves out Penguin.) publishing companies, access is becoming stratified through artificial scarcity.
And here are some truly remarkable figures:
In October, 2012, a certain best-selling book sold in print for $15.51.
If you bought the e-book on Amazon, the price was $9.99.
If your public library bought the e-book, they paid $84.00 for it.
If you're a consumer who can afford an e-reading device or smart phone and data subscription, and can afford to pay for books regularly, and don't mind paying for permission to access something that exists in a "cloud" rather than actually taking physical and legal ownership of it, then you're doing okay.

Otherwise, you're doing significantly less well.  But central to the mission of public libraries is enabling access to information for everyone including (perhaps especially) those of us who are doing less well.  With regard to ebook lending, this means fighting a long and frustrating battle with publishers and digital wholesalers. Last August, popular librarian blogger Sarah Houghton summed it up well in this widely circulated post.
I feel that we in libraries are actually doing a disservice by offering what’s “barely good enough.” We give people the false impression that they can get their eBooks through their libraries. How many libraries are upfront with information about how we can’t/don’t offer books from the most popular publishers? How many libraries are upfront with the limited formats people can get on their devices of choice? Instead, most libraries tout their subscription to a single eBook service like it’s the second coming. We say “we have eBooks!” and “they work on most devices!” without listing the caveats, perhaps hoping that people won’t notice until they’re already chest deep in the browsing or download process and only then see what the limitations are. Why in hell are we covering for a bad situation? Who gains from us putting the happy face on the dismal eBook situation in libraries? It’s certainly not libraries–we haven’t gained shit. It’s certainly not our users–in fact, they’re the biggest losers. It’s the publishers who gain–who choose to license to libraries under any terms whatsoever (they get our money and we accept crappy prices and use limitations). And it’s the middleman companies who gain–who whore themselves out for the highest profit, lying to both sides by telling the publishers that libraries are screwing them and the libraries that the publishers are the ones doing the screwing.

In the meantime, though, libraries will have to make choices regarding which combination of electronic and print resources best serves their communities. To return to the journalism comparison, the danger here is that some libraries will go the NOLA.com route, throwing out print collections and jumping all the way into digital before the technology and the legal environment has reached a point where it expands rather than constricts their ability to function as democratizers of information. In such a case, it's difficult to imagine there'd be anything John Georges could do to mitigate the damage.

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