Ebook Talks: The Details

February 8, 2012

The following is a summary of the meetings ALA President Molly Raphael and an ALA delegation held in New York City January 30–February 1 with members of the publishing industry:

As recently reported, I led an ALA delegation to New York last week to meet separately with Penguin, Macmillan, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Perseus. The publisher representatives at these meetings included CEOs, division presidents, and other executives. We had frank discussions related to library ebook lending and are appreciative of the serious engagement by these publishers. Many of the meetings extended for a longer time than scheduled, and all ended with the expectation of a continuing dialogue between each publisher and ALA.

In every meeting, we reaffirmed our mutual desire to bring authors and readers together. Indeed, publishers and libraries enjoy a long history of productive relationships toward this end. There was ready acknowledgment of the key role that libraries and publishers play in society. And there was a desire for a mutually beneficial way forward for library ebook lending.

Of course much has changed in the past few years—and all indications are that the evolution of the ebook format in particular (and the medium of e-content in general) will continue or even accelerate in the coming years. While publishers and libraries share a common mission to bring authors and readers together, it is also clear that we have some goals that diverge. It is these differences that lead to varying views in the library and publishing worlds of business models and overall short- and long-term strategies.

Our discussions with publishers who already sell ebooks to libraries focused on how to maintain and strengthen our relationships. Of course, libraries represent a significant amount of direct buying power. Perhaps even more important is the library role in discoverability. Libraries expend considerable effort to identify the most relevant works for our communities. We weed out titles and feature new titles. We construct displays in our libraries and sponsor author events, often in partnership with local bookstores. We provide literacy training; support for book groups; and offer myriad other services that promote reading and book genres, titles, and authors. These publishers clearly place a high value on the library role in discoverability, and we agreed to continue discussions on how best to provide and promote ebooks to library patrons.

In meeting with publishers who currently do not sell ebooks to libraries, we shared our profession’s concerns regarding the impact of these practices on library users, many of whom rely solely on the public library for their reading choices. In some instances, we found that there were misconceptions about how libraries operate that, once clarified, mitigated some of these publishers’ concerns. For example, some publishers had the impression that libraries lend to whomever visited their respective websites, thus making collections available virtually worldwide without restriction.

We explained the close ties between a library and its community and that collection development is based on what our users want to find in their libraries. Thus, we emphasized, ebook collections—financed mostly through local tax dollars—reflect local interests, with access restricted to the cardholders of each individual library.

Nevertheless, some substantive issues remain for publishers, though we now have a better understanding of the rationale for their concerns and of the publishing industry’s perspective as a whole. In every instance, publishers are working to identify library-lending models that they find to be acceptable. We agreed to provide feedback on any ideas they may have; in turn, they agreed to consider proposals from ALA.

A key issue that arose in each meeting is the degree to which “friction” may decline in the ebook lending transaction as compared to lending print books. From the publisher viewpoint, this friction provides some measure of security. Borrowing a print book from a library involves a nontrivial amount of personal work that often involves two trips—one to pick up the book and one to return it. The online availability of ebooks alters this friction calculation, and publishers are concerned that the ready download-ability of library ebooks could have an adverse effect on sales.

Another issue that arose in all of the meetings is the influential role of intermediaries—aggregators or retailers—in library ebook lending. Thus, examination of the issue of library ebook lending involves not only publishers and libraries, but a critical analysis of the role of intermediaries.

It was agreed that we—publishers, libraries, intermediaries, and others—operate in an ecosystem that is experiencing profound change. At the same time, a thorough understanding of the ecosystem backed by reliable data is not readily available, and deserves increased attention from ALA and others.

The biggest lesson is that there is nothing like direct communication. We didn’t leave New York with complete and perfect solutions; that wouldn’t have been a realistic expectation. But I am happy with the progress that we made on multiple fronts—establishing ongoing direct lines of communication and correcting misconceptions about libraries, to mention only two. Much work remains to fully grasp the rapidly changing context of digital content and libraries and to converge on solutions that all key stakeholders can live with. We must find these solutions so that libraries can continue to provide the best possible service to their communities.

In the coming days, we will be following up with these five publishers, initiating contact with other publishers and intermediaries, and pursuing additional activities within the framework of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group. Please look for further communications from the cochairs of the Working Group, the chairs of its subgroups, and ALA leadership in the near future.

Molly Raphael
ALA President