A Dystopian, Vampire Romance – tales of eBooks, publishers and public libraries

By Rachel O'Neill

The Coldest Girl in Cold Town is the latest Y.A. novel by Holly Black, published last month by Little Brown (part of the Hachette Book Group). It falls easily into that most ubiquitous of Y.A. fiction categories: dystopian, vampire romance. A week after publication, I purchased the Kindle edition for $4.99 (I had my reasons). While the New York Public Library purchased two eBook editions, for which there are currently multiple holds on the library website, and 72 hardcover copies (of which 22 are currently available to borrowers). Why so many hardcopies and only two of the eBooks edition? It couldn’t possibly be due to the sky-high price extracted from NYPL by the publisher to acquire an all too temporary license to the eBook edition?

In his recent opinion piece posted on Wired magazine’s website (October 2, 2013) Art Brodsky writes about The Abomination of EBooks: They Price People Out of Reading. While he isn’t too concerned with the fact that eBooks don’t offer the same sensorial experience as printed books, for him:

“The real problem with ebooks is that they’re more “e” than book, so an entirely different set of rules govern what someone — from an individual to a library — can and can’t do with them compared to physical books, especially when it comes to pricing”, (the way eBooks) “are priced differently to consumers and to libraries. That’s how eBooks contribute to the ever-growing divide between the literary haves and have-nots.”

Noting that the mark-up to libraries in some instance can be as much as 300%, Brodsky post examines the variety of other restrictions that come with eBooks, not just in terms of what device an eBook may be read on – which he claims is discriminatory enough in itself – he also tells of how libraries are only allowed to circulate an eBook a certain number of times before a decision must be made to renew the library’s eBook license. Not exactly a vision of a library utopia with equal access to all!

But then should we be surprised?

“That corporations dominate our profession as publishers, hardware manufacturers, software providers, database creators, and network gatekeepers, and that an attendant corporate ethic increasingly infuses how library management defines its modus operandi”

as Peter MacDonald has previously asserted (Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium, essay from Questioning Library Neutrality, ed Alison Lewis 2008. Original essay published in Progressive Librarian, Nos. 12/14. Spring/Summer 1997).

As of this week it may even seem like the already difficult relationship libraries have with eBooks has hit a new crisis as not one but two eBook subscription services were rolled out in quick succession. In September Oyster arrived and was portrayed in the media as “a plucky young NYC-based start up”, and then just this week the social publishing service, Scribd, announced it’s own subscription service had landed HarperCollins as it’s first major publisher to come on board and lend it some traction in the race to be the “Netflix for the eBook”. The Forbes commentary said it all:

“And even though libraries have done this for books, for free, for more than a century, so far there hasn’t been a digital, all you can eat subscription platform for books.”

And clearly we need that eBook buffet.

So where does this leave the public library? Perhaps, like the heroine of many a romance novel, in need of a complete make-over.

“As heretical as it may seem in these times, marketing probably deserves financial preference over the more basic library activities”

(Maria J Nauratil in The Alienated Librarian pg 77, quoting Daniel Carroll’s Library Marketing: Old and New Truths Wilson Library Bulletin 57, November 1982 pg 216). But it must be incredibly demoralizing to be trying to get the message out that public libraries are there to cater to patrons, who are often the most under served in the community, while at the same time coping with underfunding, as well as pressure to maintain their collections in the face of strident commercial competition.

So what about a happy/happier ending? While it might not make everyone happy all of the time, there is much worth considering in Eric Hellman’s August, 2013 blog post about an alternative business model for Libraries and eBooks: A Rational Framework for Library eBook Licensing. Hellman offers up a range of practical suggestions for Libraries and publishers to cooperate over eBook licensing, including the currently contentious notion that if the library buys an eBook, it should get to keep the eBook. However, he is also advocating compromise when he suggests libraries could pay up to a 500% mark-up for the most popular eBooks but a much reduced price for eBooks where the library will most likely have some hand in making them a success. While Hellman acknowledges his proposals would require a radical rethinking of how things are done, never an easy ask, the benefits to both publishers and libraries would be immense.

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