Libraries Own Random House Ebooks

May 10, 2012

At the Massachusetts Library Association annual conference in Worcester this morning, Ruth Liebmann, director of account marketing at Random House, stated emphatically that libraries own the ebooks they purchase from Random House.

[Ed. Note: This statement won’t really mean anything until a library tries to exercise rights from the first sale doctrine with respect to Random House ebooks. If we really own them, can we ILL them? Can we sell them at a used book sale? —Christopher Harris]

Liebmann and Josh Marwell, president of sales at Harper Collins, participated on a panel moderated by ALA President Molly Raphael. The program began with opening statements by the publisher representatives followed by a Q and A led by Raphael before the standing-room-only audience had a chance to weigh in.

Asserting the importance of the library market, Liebmann and Marwell suggested a long future for print and concurred that publishers have not done a good job of explaining what they do to bring authors’ works to market. They subsequently joined in saying that libraries haven’t, until recently, done a good job of explaining what they do to publishers. There was agreement that the work ALA is doing by meeting with publishers is opening a much-needed conversation in a positive way.

In his opening statement, Marwell listed and emphasized five roles of publishers:

  1. Distributors of books
  2. Developers of talent (finding, supporting and editing authors)
  3. Creators of products (print, ebooks, apps)
  4. Legal guardians and administrative mavens (managing the business for authors)
  5. Marketers of books to every possible market

One questioner from the audience was surprised at the emphasis both presenters placed on the future of print. It seemed as though the significance of the ebook was being downplayed. Both Marwell and Liebmann restated their positions that print has a long and important future. Marwell reported that just 2% of book buyers are digital- only readers, 25% are print only and 49% are hybrid readers who read both print and digital. He also said that these percentages are in flux.

Programs at state conferences like this one can be useful in moving the conversation to the librarian to publisher level, but this one needed more time for the library audience to voice its concerns and questions.

ROB MAIER is director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and a member of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group.