ALA at BEA: Another Good Dialogue

June 5, 2013

As previously reported, ALA President Maureen Sullivan participated on the panel “E-books from Libraries: Good for Authors?” at the 2013 Book Expo America in New York. The May 30 session, organized by the Association of Authors’ Representatives, was a win for libraries (thanks Maureen!), with a few notable things said. Turnout was strong, with perhaps 300 or more in attendance.

Moderator Ginger Clark (left), representing the Association of Authors Representatives, with panelists Paul Aiken of the Authors Guild, ALA President Maureen Sullivan, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster, Steve Potash of OverDrive, and Jack Perry of 38enso Inc. Photo by Alan InouyeCarolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, was a last-minute addition to the panel. Overall, she had rather positive things to say about libraries, noting that publishers have always thought that working with libraries is beneficial. Reidy noted that obviously libraries provide some discoverability for titles, as well as making a cultural contribution to those who cannot afford to purchase books. For her, the challenge is coupling library lending with sales opportunities, a concern that is reflected in the current Simon & Schuster pilot in New York.

OverDrive CEO Steve Potash made a passionate and compelling case for libraries. Potash asserted that libraries are not merely good for authors in the ebook era—rather, they are great. There is indeed a sea change in the digital world, he said, but any “danger” to publishers from this paradigm shift should never be attributed to public libraries (some publishers characterize library ebook lending that way). The real danger is to authors, and comes from anonymity, Twitter, YouTube, and other distractions from long-form reading. Library ebook lending is not a science project, Potash said, noting that OverDrive has circulated hundreds of millions of ebooks. As for library patrons, they should be considered among the most-sought-after of customers, instead of digital pirates, as borne out by studies showing a strong correlation between frequent library borrowing and book purchases.

I hope that the following words won’t crash the American Libraries server, but the sea change we’re experiencing is not all about libraries. Maureen Sullivan emphasized that we need to focus on the health of the publishing ecosystem. We all need to be concerned about providing access for everyone through digital and print formats. That’s what libraries are about, she said, and we are all dependent on the continued good work of authors and others in the publishing ecosystem.

Sullivan also made it clear that embargos on sales to libraries of certain ebook titles just don’t work. “The public has the right to information when it is published . . . from the library perspective, it needs to be available at a reasonable price.” There was agreement that publishers will be dropping embargoing (or windowing, as publishers call it) as a tactic, which already is well underway as evidenced through recent developments from Penguin and Hachette Book Group.

After this panel, Sullivan, ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels, and I met with OverDrive leadership, and I had a number of other meetings with publishers and intermediaries. Overall, I came away from New York with the feeling that the momentum towards improved conditions for library ebook lending continues to be positive, though probably less than rapid. Hence, we need to continue our efforts to ensure that all published works are available to libraries, and that the terms offered are fair ones for pricing and other factors. ALA will move ahead with initiatives to engage individual authors and author groups, as well as to maintain its outreach to publishers and distributors. This is not the time to ease up on our work, but rather to press forth as vigorously as possible to maintain—and hopefully accelerate—the progress from the past months.

ALAN S. INOUYE is director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy and program manager of ALA’s Digital Content Initiative.