Thursday, October 15, 2009

Front Page News: Libraries To Kill Trade*

Motoko Rich (NYTimes) takes a look at eBook lending in libraries without discovering anything particularly new - at least to anyone with even a passing interest in the topic. While the article does note Overdrive and Netlibrary have been addressing the market, Rich suggests publishers have no business model and specifically mentions S&S and Macmillan as companies that refuse to sell their eBook titles into the library market. Her assertion that libraries "across the country" are filling their "shelves" with eBooks would seem to contradict the suggestion that publishers are holding back their titles because they "have not found a business model that works for us and our authors" (according to S&S). But addressing that contradiction is less interesting than the idea that libraries are havens for free-loaders who will eventually tear the trade publishing industry asunder.

Certainly holding back your eBook titles is not a strategy. In contrast, Overdrive and Netlibrary both have business models that have seen uptake from large trade publishers. In the future, these models may or may not facilitate eBooks being loaned en mass by libraries (though I am by no means suggesting that these models, as they currently exist, are ideally suited to the time when eBooks become a significant segment of the market); but today they represent working models for which publishers have signed up. Libraries already purchase vast amounts of eContent (serials, databases, etc.) licensed by publishers, the majority of whom had legacy print businesses. Some of these same publishers also make their educational and sci/tech book titles available electronically. Why, then, has the professional and scientific publishing community been able to build multi-million dollar-eContent businesses in the library market while trade publishers can't find a business model?

The sci/tech model may not be directly adaptable to trade, but that segment of the industry underwent its own experimentation process as its business model matured. You won't get from Rich a primer on how the trade segment might effect a similar transition; instead, we're offered only a passing reference to the academic segments' subscription models--but this is only to enforce the notion that access is experimental and limited. In conclusion, we're left to believe that libraries represent a challenge to the whole notion of paid content and will eventually erode the trade publishing model: "In libraries, readers are attracted to free material," she avers, and "buying doesn't make sense" says a library patron.

This article doesn't do anyone any favors, casting library patrons as free-loaders and assuming trade publishers are bereft of innovative ideas for addressing the library market. Neither is an accurate reflection of the relationship across the spectrum of libraries and publishers.

* Note: The article was on the front page of the Times...

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