Sunday, March 4, 2012

Random House's eBook Price Hikes are GOOD for Libraries. IF...

Random House, the last of the Big 6 Publishers to allow libraries to purchase and lend ebooks on a 1-copy-1-patron (pretend-its-print) basis, said last month that it was going to raise its pricing for libraries. The new pricing isn't set in stone, but Library Journal has reported that libraries are being asked to pay as much as three times the price of a print copy for a lendable ebook from Random House.

The general reaction from the library world was nicely summed up by ALA President Molly Raphael in an official press release: "In a time of extreme financial constraint, a major price increase effectively curtails access for many libraries, and especially our communities that are hardest hit economically."

Well, yes. But 5 years from now, libraries may well look back on Random's move and recognize it as the beginning of a new, healthier relationship between public libraries and trade publishers, one that recognizes libraries as an important player in the "reading ecology". Here are the reasons why I think it might happen:

  • eBooks aren't books! So why should the price of a library-lendable eBook be locked to the price of a print book? Once the prices of lendable ebooks are allowed to float, market forces will move them up and down. For some books, high profile best sellers for example, the market price for a lendable ebook might be 5 or 10 times the print price. A year later, that same book would have to be steeply discounted to be sellable in the library market. Books without a buzz, or by a new author might be offered to libraries well below the print price, in an attempt to prime the market and spread the word.
  • High prices for library-market books are nothing new! In academic markets where libraries make up a significant fraction of the buyers, prices are already over $100 per copy. That's because the  sales impact of inter-library loan and other forms of library sales-substitution is built-in to the price.
  • Higher prices give libraries more leverage. This is the most important benefit of higher prices for  lendable ebooks. Libraries aren't being forced to buy the 3x ebooks- they will consider prices and their limited budgets before investing in them. They'll need to demand digital product features tailored to libraries to make them worth premium prices. 

This last point is the big IF. With its move, Random House has made clear what it wants out of a new relationship with libraries- more cash per copy. In return, libraries need to demonstrate what they expect for their money. What should libraries require from their premium ebooks in exchange for premium prices? Here's my list:

  1. Portability - the ebooks shouldn't be locked to the distribution platform of a particular vendor; most libraries have existed longer than Overdrive, Adobe, Apple and Amazon combined and libraries would like to continue existing after those companies have been long forgotten. Their ebooks should persist as well.
  2. Transferability -  libraries can make their ebook assets go a lot farther if they can be traded to other libraries or library consortia.
  3. Privacy - libraries should never be forced to expose their users to the prying eyes of anybody!
  4. Accessibility -  libraries will increasingly be relied on to provide text-to-speech and other accessibility technologies to users who need them.
  5. Integrability - libraries don't want to be sources of friction, they want to provide integrated information environments. Library systems will increasingly provide capability such as annotation, discussion, advanced discovery tools and social interaction; they won't be able to do that if their ebooks are walled off behind third party DRM.

But, back in the real world,  most public libraries that offer ebooks are having difficulty keeping their digital shelves stocked due to overwhelming user demand for ebooks. If ebooks cost 3 times what they did last year, the availability will be 3 times worse. How can this situation get back into balance? I have three suggestions. First, if ebooks don't expire, as in the Harper-Collins scheme, the supply of ebooks will grow over time so that even if long wait times for hot titles are the norm, plenty of 5-year-old ebooks will be there to read for library users. Second, libraries can steer users to ebooks that don't have pretend-it's-print lending limits: those in the Public Domain or in the Creative Commons.

Here's an idea for a way that a smart publisher could help a library convert its print collection- offer a 1 for 3 (or 1 for 2) p for e  trade-in. The publisher's sales of new books would improve by suppressing competition from used books, and the library would gain inventory of older books to slake reader book-thirst.

Both libraries and publishers need to move on from backward-looking economic models. The time to start doing so is now. We can make it happen.

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  1. I’m not sure who would be arguing that eBooks should be locked to the price of a print book. It seems that both eBooks and print book prices float. I would not try floating an eBook.

    As for high prices, public libraries and academic libraries are different beasts. FYI, public libraries inter-loan all the time.

    Libraries will still have to buy multiple copies or licenses if you will, and I see no reason for publishers to tailor anything for libraries…if anything they would give us a crumby version like Warner now does with DVDs.

    I don’t think libraries are in the position to require anything from publishers, we should but we just aren’t in that position.

  2. If libraries buy crumby products, they are sure to get more crumbs.

  3. But if you are going to charge me so much more for this new medium, then let me own it -- don't license it! The whole DRM/licensing thing is why so many smaller libraries (and that is the majority of the library market), have not jumped on the eBook bandwagon.

    There is a basic problem with a physical book, I (personally or as the library) own a unit which I can lend as often as I want (hear that HarperCollins??), and when it is no longer useful to me, I can give it away, sell it to someone else, or throw it away. None of that is possible under the current scenario. Right now all you get is a license....which has language which seems to let the distributor or publisher revoke it at their discretion. (Amazon and 1984?)

    I am among those who admit that there are costs associated with production. But, as someone who has read a half dozen eBooks over the past few weeks, they need to actually make the production values better. Several different titles (different publishers) had funny line breaks, funny spacing, and other strange typographical oddities. Very annoying.

    And....speaking of paying (because as an individual I did), why should there be a price difference (or licensing, etc.) between an individual and any organization?

  4. A library ebook licensed with transferability and portability provisions has the the attributes of "ownership" that are relevant to libraries. There ain't no such thing as true ebook ownership to correspond with physical book ownership, so it would be good if we could get over that and move on.

  5. It seems clear that publishers and authors have a complex mix of advantages and disadvantages to consider in the ebook arena. Costs to the publisher and libraries are significantly reduced by the distribution and storage of ebooks vs. print. The authors deserve to receive equivalent pay for creative effort in either circumstance.

    The customer has the money, and the publisher has the product (book), and I have yet to feel that any customer has been given due consideration by the publishers. I can buy new books, or read from the library, or borrow from my friends and neighbors, or buy used books.

    As a customer, I enjoy the use of ebooks for the convenience of saving my travel and shipping efforts, but I am very uncomfortable with the loose "ownership" that I have when "purchasing" and ebook. I vote with my money, and cannot accept that the real control over what I have "bought" remains with the publisher after the transation is complete.

    The audio and video industry have struggled through this, with mixed results, and I intend to remain stingy to the point of boycott until I feel that all the disadvantages do not lie with the customer.

    1. Russ, I think focusing on the consumer is a winning strategy. Why isn't this more obvious?