Ebooks: Promising New Conversations

May 18, 2012

Earlier this week, I led a four-person ALA delegation to New York to meet with Hachette Book Group and four national organizations that represent authors. Meeting with Hachette was a priority, as we were unable to meet with them on our last delegation trip to New York. But most of our time focused on author groups, to provide us with the opportunity to improve our understanding of their concerns in the ebook era and articulate our concerns so that we may identify areas of common interest, for which we might engage in collaborative advocacy.

We had a very promising meeting at Hachette. As you may know, Hachette discontinued offering their new ebook titles to libraries as of April 2010, though Hachette continues to sell its backlist (i.e., titles with publication dates prior to April 2010). Going in to this meeting, we were hoping to establish a relationship with Hachette and to persuade them to give serious consideration to providing libraries with access to its newer titles.

It quickly became obvious that Hachette Book Group executives and digital strategists have spent considerable time thinking about the library ebook market. Hachette sees libraries as strong partners because of our benefits as direct customers and marketers of their titles, and they recognize libraries’ place as an integral institution in communities that must be supported.

More specifically, we were pleased to learn that starting this spring, Hachette is conducting a pilot with two ebook distributors for libraries, which will bring a selection of HBG’s recent bestselling ebooks to 7 million library patrons. These pilot programs will help HBG learn more about library patrons’ interests, usage, and expectations, and help the publisher devise the best strategy to reach the widest audience of ebook readers in libraries.

The majority of our time was allocated to meetings with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Authors Guild, PEN American Center, and the National Writers Union. For print books, authors have long-standing relationships with libraries, both directly and through publishers. An important purpose of our visits was to improve our understanding of how these relationships are evolving for ebooks and to establish the basis for an ongoing relationship with author groups. Of course, we also raised the profile of the library ebook problem, hoping to garner support for universal publisher sales of ebooks to libraries.

In an important respect, we found common cause with authors: We seem to share great uncertainty in our respective environments and a feeling that, while technology should enable bright futures for the knowledge society, somehow our particular populations are getting the short end of the stick. Moreover, just as with publishers and distributors (and libraries), there is a great variety of viewpoints on access to digital content among authors and author groups.

The particular issue of library lending of ebooks attracted widely varying responses. One response was strongly supportive, as indicated by a recent letter written by Salley Shannon, president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The issue was less known in the other groups, and it spurred varying kinds of discussion. On several occasions, we ended up talking about how libraries lend ebooks and how that can affect sales, not unlike the discussions we had with some publishers. Other concerns also emerged, such as equity of access for lower-income populations and children and privacy vulnerabilities that can occur through third-party control of library services infrastructure.

At several points during our visit, the possibility was raised of new collaborations between authors and libraries—including models that could provide improved capabilities for the reading public, more revenue for authors, and lower costs for libraries. ALA, of course, encourages exploration that could lead to substantially improved opportunities, while also recognizing that new infrastructures are not inherently superior.

Joining me in New York on behalf of ALA were Keith Michael Fiels (ALA executive director), Robert Wolven (cochair of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group and associate university librarian at Columbia University), and Alan Inouye (director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy and program manager of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Initiative). While formidable challenges remain—to be sure—the four of us did see a few rays of sunshine (real and metaphorical) despite the wet and cloudy weather during our visit to New York City.

Molly Raphael
ALA President