It would be hard to imagine that a less equal business relationship exists than that between publishers and libraries. Without even the semblance of discussion, negotiation or consultation Random House did what HarperCollins did last year and imposed a solution to mitigate a problem no one can even prove exists. The problem: That loaning eBooks from a library is so easy that retail sales will be destroyed. Curiously, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, both of whom would naturally have a problem with free books, have always been fairly mute about how libraries retain a competitive advantage over these retailing behemoths.
Random House’s solution is to triple down on the price of the book; the logic of the tripling is just as opaque as Harpercollins choosing 26 loans until their books ‘expire’. As a cop out, Random House suggests that more data is needed and on the delivery of said data they may adjust their pricing accordingly. Those with rose colored glasses will want to view that as a possibility that they will bring their pricing downwards; but, really? The whole notion of use-data is both a canard and disingenuous. For one, I’m not aware of any publisher sponsored research or collaboration (with ALA, OCLC, etc.) where the purpose was to define the library patron and their purchasing behavior.
It’s not like the behavior hasn’t been there to study for 100 years. In fact the data is available – certainly not in one database but in three or four; for example, circulation data from an OPAC, bibliographic information from OCLC, psychographic information from GfK Group and retail sales information from BookScam. What’s missing is the willingness to do the hard work.
Sadly, libraries have very little negotiating leverage or power. And it’s not like they can go to their cities or states for more money so that they can buy these more expensive eBooks. What’s the last public sector anything that had their budget raised 300%? So, libraries are dependent on public outrage and even there most people will shrug their shoulders and move along. Current ALA President Molly Raphael's statement was part cajoling, part plea – and who can blame her? There aren’t that many options:
Random House did not jump on the band wagon with the other large trade houses when they all went over to the agency model but with this unilateral action they probably have every trade house cheering them on. Random House is unlikely to ‘make it up in volume’ because most libraries are simply going to buy other publisher’s eBooks (until they go up as well), and I can say categorically – because I have no data to back this up – that they won’t see a corresponding increase in retail sales either.“While I appreciate Random House’s engagement with libraries and its commitment to perpetual access,” Raphael said, “I am deeply disappointed in the severe escalation in ebook pricing reported today. Calling on our history together and our hope to satisfy mutual goals moving forward, the American Library Association strongly urges Random House to reconsider its decision. In a time of extreme financial constraint, a major price increase effectively curtails access for many libraries, and especially our communities that are hardest hit economically.“Also, ALA appreciates the data gaps that exist, and we commit to work quickly and collaboratively to address this concern. We must have better data to inform decisions that have such wide and deep implications.
Any willingness y publishers to really work with public libraries to work out a solution has been spotty at best. The fact that the prime distribution avenue into the public library segment seems to act as much like a bumbling doofus as it does a concerned partner probably serves the publishers perfectly. Fellow traveler Eric Hellman perfectly numbers the real issues associated with eBook distribution into public libraries but resolving these to any degree is probably beyond expectation.