Why Do Publishers Hate Us?

Fear of uncertainty is driving—or deterring—dialogue

February 20, 2013

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Okay, now I’ve got this bright, shiny new column to play with. What will I do with it? Be provocative? Reassuring? Speak the uncomfortable truth? Turn to history for lessons? Look to the future for inspiration?

More than likely. For now, let me ponder this month’s title question. It doesn’t take much to find numerous examples in recent months to indicate that the publishing world, broadly construed, has a library problem. (Or, more aptly, the library world has a publishing problem.)

The Georgia State e-reserves lawsuit. The American Chemical Society reacting very badly indeed to SUNY Potsdam’s decision to dump its online journal subscription package. The seemingly endless series of instances of ever-more insidious models of pricing, licenses, policies, and so on for ebooks. Who would have thought that the HarperCollins 26-loan model would look so quaint or desirable so soon?

For good measure, there’s also the Authors Guild lawsuit against the HathiTrust business model, which hinges in part on the orphan works issue. I hereby propose that we refuse to listen to any lectures about this until publishers get their own house in order, or at least work with us in figuring out how to proceed. The pervasive school of thought seems to be that it’s preferable to lock stuff up—in perpetuity, or as close to that as can be legislatively or judicially achieved—rather than run the tiny risk that some long-tail novel or journal might get copied and read a second time. Please.

Not to mention the ne plus ultra—and who thought you’d ever read this in a library publication?—publishers simply refusing to sell books to libraries (ebooks, that is). Bennett Cerf is undoubtedly rolling in his grave. There aren’t a whole lot of reasons that a profit-making corporation just won’t sell something to you. Despite our longstanding commitment to building readership, publishers now want no part of us and our market power when it comes to digital titles.

It is, still, hard to believe that an entire sector—one that still courts us at ALA and BookExpo America with tote bags and Hershey’s Kisses, and with which we have worked so successfully for generations—has turned so quickly and comprehensively against us. Perhaps, in a spirit of generosity, we could give them the benefit of the doubt and consider what else might be going on. Do you suppose they so fully misunderstand or misconstrue our work, thinking that we are in fact trying to buy one copy of The Casual Vacancy and then lend it to every public library patron in the country? It can’t be envy. Disrespect?

You know what I think it is? None of those. Secretly, privately, doors closed in the dark of night, publishing houses believe the jig is up. The end of a century-old comfy business model is nigh, and thus they’ll leave us out in the cold while they make deals with Amazon or Apple or whoever is in power and slit their own throats in the process in order to eke out the last few dimes before the clock strikes midnight. Or merge. (Random Penguin House, anyone?)

Do I think the future is that dire for publishers, or for libraries? No, but I do think that many people do, which is what really matters. Everybody knows that massive change with an uncertain outcome is afoot; so what’s driving the bus here isn’t vengeance, or confusion, or realignment. It’s fear.

We’re collateral damage. It’s not us; it’s them, as they struggle to envision their place in a landscape frightening and unfamiliar. In that respect, at least, we’re on common ground, as that’s an issue we’ve been dealing with for quite some time. Who knows? Maybe if they just asked us nicely, we could give them some advice (actually, we already have) . . . but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor and chair of the MLIS program at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.