Thoughts on BEA 2015: Everything You Need to Succeed

June 2, 2015

The main concourse at BEA 2015
The main concourse at BEA 2015.

For a first-time attendee at Book Expo America (BEA), my impression was that it was like the ALA Annual Conference on steroids. There were lines everywhere, not only for autographs, but lines for getting tickets to stand in line for autographs.

In spite of the evident promotion and glitz, there was an unmistakable air of getting down to business everywhere one went. And that sense of purpose was clear also to our ALA delegation. I attended as the co-chair of the ALA Digital Content Working Group (DCWG), along with ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels, and Alan S. Inouye, director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), and Carrie Russell, director of OITP’s Program on Public Access to Information.

Meeting with publishers

Our first meeting was with Skip Dye, a vice president with Penguin Random House (PRH). A key agenda item for us is the company’s library ebook business model. Currently, Random House makes all titles available on a perpetual license model at prices ranging from 3–5 times the cost of a hardcover. Penguin’s pricing has been comparable to consumer prices, but for a one-year term. We discussed ALA perspectives about PRH’s future library ebook business model as the company continues to work through its merger. It will be important to libraries to see how this decision comes down, as PRH is by far the largest of the Big Five.

Because DCWG is looking for ways to help libraries expand their ebook holdings in order to build collections with some breadth and depth, we were looking for options from publishers, such as additional copies at a lower price, pay per use, or other alternatives. It has become clear that paying five times the hardback list price or rebuying titles every year severely limit the ability of libraries to grow their ebook collections since purchasing budgets grow very slowly and must be stretched to cover a multitude of formats. We need a critical mass of e-content before people will look to libraries as a reliable source, and current pricing inhibits that goal.

Although most libraries now offer at least some ebooks, many still have a narrow selection. A 2015 Library Journal Materials Survey reported that libraries now spend an average of 7% of their collection budgets on ebooks. Sales of ebooks indicate the potential for more robust circulation, but the dilemma is whether an increased investment will stimulate circulation if the investment yields only a small increase in holdings.

The majority of our time spent at BEA was devoted to meetings with midsized publishers, expanding the scope of DCWG’s previous work that focused on the Big Five. We wanted to thank them for selling ebooks to libraries, discuss business models, seek feedback, and get their perspective on ebook publishing more broadly (and maybe also different models for mid-list and back-list than for front-list titles).

We met with library representatives from McGraw Hill, Sourcebooks, Akashic Books, Independent Book Publishers’ Association, and Workman Publishing to sample their perspectives. We learned that numerous trials are going on in the industry, with some looking at models of simultaneous access when there is a defined community, as in an academic setting. Some publishers have tried pay-as-you-go and found it not economically viable. Some are still hesitant to work with consortia because of the need for contracts. Some are working with aggregators who have other models, such as pay per view or simultaneous users. While publishers are open to bundling titles for sales, bundles create problems for some aggregators. At least the representatives we talked with seemed to appreciate the opportunities libraries offer for marketing publishers’ products and expressed interest in author appearances at libraries and other such promotions.

Panel discussion highlights

Keith Fiels moderated a panel, “The Power of Partnerships,” which he acknowledged should have been called “Ebooks: The Continuing Saga.” Prices are still too high and the user experience is fragmented. Andrew Roskill, CEO of BiblioLabs and one of the creators of BiblioBoard, talked about the issues of sustainability, improving user experience and reaching underserved communities. He clarified that BiblioBoard is not another content delivery platform, but a platform for promoting content and engaging patrons.

Michael Colford from Boston Public Library also expressed a desire for integrated discovery, calling for a process that is as simple as possible. Veronda Pitchford of the Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS), a multi-type library system serving the northern half of Illinois, talked about E-books Illinois, which serves 1,300 libraries and could be a beta test ground for trying out models for delivering e-content.

Josh Marwell of HarperCollins brought the discussion back to business as he pointed out that the industry average is 30% of sales from ebooks. Library sales of ebooks from HarperCollins represent 13% of total library sales.

Wrap-up comments included the observation that models for ebook sales and distribution should not be defined by the models for print books with check-outs, hold lists and, in general, a model of scarcity. ReadersFirst, the grassroots group of over 300 libraries established to improve access to ebooks, is working with National Information Standards Organization (NISO) on ebook standards. Library Simplified, a project of New York Public Library (NYPL) in partnership with nine other libraries plans to launch its three-click ebook access app at ALA Annual.

The interest in experimentation by publishers and aggregators was heartening.

I spoke on a panel titled “Public Libraries, the Publishers’ (Discovery and Revenue) Friend in the Digital Age,” organized by Seth Gershel, a consultant and former publisher. Nora Rawlinson, publisher of EarlyWord, brought her experience from working in public libraries and publishing to bear on her remarks regarding the extensive presence of libraries in communities throughout the country, making them logical outlets for publishers’ marketing efforts. She described an experiment in which a promotion of a mid-list title in a six-branch library system in Maryland resulted in the title becoming not only a local hit, but achieving a place on the New York Times Best Seller list.

I pointed out that libraries have displays of popular titles, book clubs, reading promotions, and personalized selection of books for readers in a way that is effective because librarians know their communities and readers’ interests. Unlike some of the bookstores that have closed, libraries have roots in their communities and enjoy the trust of their patrons. Libraries want to grow their ebook collections and are looking for flexible terms that make that growth possible. Jeff Jankowski of Midwest Visual talked about models such as Hoopla that offer alternatives for libraries to expand ebook offerings to their users. Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly closed out the panel with an observation that libraries need to be on the offense in the digital revolution.

The interest in experimentation by publishers and aggregators was heartening. OverDrive touted the success of their “Library Big Read,” in which a single title is made available for simultaneous use for a period of time. One can only hope that the experimentation and good will result in an acceptable business model that will enable libraries to become essential players in ebook distribution before their users turn elsewhere to obtain their digital content or divert their energies toward less-contemplative endeavors.