If Libraries Didn't Exist, Would Publishers Be Trying To Kill Book Lending?

from the making-life-that-little-bit-more-diffcult dept

Against the background of today's war on sharing, exemplified by SOPA and PIPA, traditional libraries underline an inconvenient truth: allowing people to share things – principally books in the case of libraries – does not lead to the collapse of the industry trying to sell those same things. But publishers really don't seem to have learned that lesson, judging by this article in the New York Times about the nonsensical attitude they have to libraries lending out ebooks:
In their eyes, borrowing an e-book from a library has been too easy. Worried that people will click to borrow an e-book from a library rather than click to buy it, almost all major publishers in the United States now block libraries' access to the e-book form of either all of their titles or their most recently published ones.
This suggests that if libraries didn't exist, and somebody tried to set one up, publishers would use the same logic to refuse to sell traditional books for that purpose. History shows that's an absurd position, but equally absurd are the efforts of publishers to make borrowing ebooks less convenient:
To keep their overall revenue from taking a hit from lost sales to individuals, publishers need to reintroduce more inconvenience for the borrower or raise the price for the library purchaser.
The article invokes the example of paperbacks published some time after the hardback edition as an equivalent situation. But that's about pricing: publishers don't try to make it "inconvenient" for people to borrow paperbacks from libraries by creating special low-quality copies that fall to pieces after a few loans (essentially what Harper Collins does with its ebooks), nor do they add surcharges to the paperback price to try to squeeze more from the libraries that lend them out.

Sadly, publishers really are thinking along these lines:
Ms. Thomas of Hachette says: "We've talked with librarians about the various levers we could pull," such as limiting the number of loans permitted or excluding recently published titles.
Publishers are so obsessed with stamping out this ebook sharing scourge that they are oblivious to two likely consequences of their current approach. One, obviously, is increased piracy: if potential customers want to try out an ebook before buying it, but it's not available for them to borrow at their local library, it will certainly be available somewhere online, if they look hard enough. The risk is that having procured an unauthorized copy, they don't then go on to replace it with an authorized one.

The other problem for those publishers boycotting public libraries is evident from a comment by a librarian quoted in the New York Times piece:
Ms. Nesbitt adds, however, that many of the library's patrons aren't aware that other publishers are withholding e-books from it.
If library users aren't aware that certain titles are being withheld, that means they haven't asked for them - probably because they haven't heard of those ebooks, or think they won't be interested. Keeping titles out of public libraries makes it less likely that readers will ever find out about them or change their minds. After all, as the article goes on to say, there is no lack of alternatives:
While many major publishers have effectively gone on strike, more than 1,000 smaller publishers, who don’t have best-seller sales that need protection, happily sell e-books to libraries. That means the public library has plenty of e-books available for the asking — no waiting.
A familiar pattern emerges. Small, innovative publishers who are ready to adapt, reap the benefits by meeting the growing demand for ebooks at local libraries – and doubtless picking up knock-on sales as a result. Meanwhile, big, sclerotic publishers resist trying out new business models, preferring to make the use of digital formats for lending as "inconvenient" as possible – in the forlorn hope that readers will just give up and buy something. We all know how that story ends.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: books, ebooks, lending, libraries, publishing


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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 5 Jan 2012 @ 11:05am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    1) "Wrong - the list included copyright protected Works as well."

    Indeed it did. However, that was error and does not counter the original point about the intention of the project.

    2) "Wrong - no they did not."

    If you want to call them liars, just come out and do it.

    "They assumed the rightful owners would find out after the fact and by that time it would have been too late."

    Not true. They made a best effort to vet the works they were including. They included a mechanism by which authors could object as a safety mechanism in the case of error -- a mechanism which worked, by the way. In no way did they just make an arbitrary list and count on authors coming forward as the primary vetting method.

    "And for the record there is no such thing as an orphan book."

    You're simply factually incorrect here, unless you mean something different by "orphan work" than the project does.

    3) "Wrong - they released a release date for the project.
    The list was complied by a 3rd party who brought the copyright infringements to their attention."

    Another factual error. They did release a list along with the release date.

    4) "Hathitrust (i'm going to assume here) was going through with the project under a "fair use" idea, and if that didn't work they knew Sovereign immunity would prevent them from being sued for money."

    Cynical much? Again, if you're going to call them liars, just come out and say it.

    5) "Wrong - the scanning was done. In fact court records show it cost the libraries $100.00 per book. Nice pay day for google!"

    I have a bunch of out of print books. You know what I can do without violating copyright? Scan them. I just can't distribute my scans. The mere act of scanning does not indicate a copyright violation, and your refutation is incorrect.

    6) "The project is down, not a good start for the people claiming they did no wrong."

    They admit they made errors. What more do you want from them? Are you saying that you believe they had malicious intent? Please enlighten us on your evidence.

    The Hathitrust project comes out of this looking incompetent but well-intentioned.

    The author's guild, and a great many authors themselves, have come out of this looking a whole lot worse: petty, vindictive, greedy, and mysteriously hostile to a group who I would have expected they would be supportive of.

    I used to hold the writer's guild with some amount of respect, but no more. They have shown their true stripes with this debacle.

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