There's a really interesting blog post from Jenny Bent (who is new to me) entitled Bent on Books: Think of me as a conduit, not a gatekeeper. She's looking at books from the publishing side of the fence, rather than the librarianship side. She really likes the fact that a lot of authors are getting published by circumnavigating the traditional 'gatekeeper' test of going through an agent or publishing house. They're either working directly with indie houses or going straight to publishing themselves. Here's a quote:
But now, with e-publishing, it's easier than ever for an author to get their book out there, and the list of successfully self-published e-book authors is growing exponentially, every day.
Jenny makes the point that publishers have to look at titles from the viewpoint of an organisation that has to make money - quite right too. However, there's a difference between 'reader taste' and 'publisher taste'. By opening up publishing, we're moving to a much more democratic system of making titles available.
I think that she's absolutely right, and I'd recommend you read her entire post. This of course brings me back to something that I'm beginning to bang on about more and more - which is that one of the new strands of librarianship and librarians is to become far more involved with the whole publishing process. For a very long time we've also been seen as gatekeepers, but the role is now morphing more into facilitating, or being a conduit as Jenny describes the role. The professional is in a superb position - they're often experts in their fields, or they can bring titles to the attention of experts, they understand 'reader taste' as well - not perhaps 'publisher taste' but 'authority taste'. Information professionals are uniquely positioned to cross the entire spectrum of published works, from the lightest romance to serious academic work. And, by utilising social media and networks that cross boundaries (or to use the publishing paradigm, publishing houses), are able to alert colleagues and readers to new work and new authors.
This is just an idea that I've got kicking around in my head at the moment, so I'm putting it down onscreen partly to clarify it, partly to get feedback. It wasn't really something that occured to me until the 'HarperCollins 26 loans and you're out' fiasco started. As an aside, it's interesting to see that they're now wavering on that idea, given the fury that they have caused. There are two ways of looking at their original position. The first is that as a publisher, they're in a very strong position. They are the ones who have the authors, they produce the product, edit, proof and typeset it. They also choose the sale price and the royalties that the author gets. Obviously, they also choose how often an ebook can be loaned out. So, very powerful right? Wrong. This is the second way of looking at their position. They are in an absolute panic. They simply don't understand how best to work in a new market place, and I find it interesting that they're not looking at ebooks as a new medium, they're trying to relate it back to something that they understand - the physical book. That's the way that publishers have always worked. They produce product. Books are product. The product can be controlled by the numbers that are sold, reprints and new editions. Bookshops are similar - the book is a saleable product. The physical item is the thing that matters. The basic publication/production/sales model really hasn't changed for hundreds of years, and indeed one could argue that it never has. Librarians on the other hand are used to viewing the product as a contain for the thing that's really important - the knowledge contained within. We want to get the information to the user in the most effective way possible, and it doesn't really matter if that's in a book, magazine, CD-ROM database or online. We are much more flexible, because we're doing something different with the basic product.
Publishers are making the classic mistake that people who don't understand the new paradigm make - they are trying to tighten their hold and control over the product/information *because that's all they can do*. I saw it back in the late 80s and early 90s with information providers who gave SilverPlatter the right to publisher their information in a CD-ROM database format. They wanted old discs returned. They wanted anti-copy procedures put in place and so on. Control information and the provision of information by controlling the product. Some publishers get it however. Try this quote from Tim O'Reilly:
Let’s say my goal is to sell 10,000 copies of something. And let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits.
People who don’t pay you generally wouldn’t have paid you anyway. We’re delighted when people who can’t afford our books don’t pay us for them, if they go out and do something useful with that information.
Neil Gaiman also gets it - he discovered that countries that had a high level of piracy of his works resulted in better sales, not worse.
So my view is that the publisher - in general - is having a really hard time coming to terms with the new world that we live in. The traditional control that the publisher has is falling away, and the author is in a much better to circumvent them. Amazon is now allowing people to self publish, and it's painfully easy to do it. Write your book in Word, download the software, translate it into the Kindle format they need, set your royalty level and price and there you go. One book published, thank you very much. They'll take care of the finance, they make it available in their Kindle store, and all that the author has to do is sit and wait for the money to come in. Surely, as an author it makes financial sense if they sell a lot of books at say £5.00 with a 70% royalty than a much smaller number at £35.00 where they get 10% royalty? Of course, it's not really that easy, since there's a need to publicise the book, find some way of reassuring people of the quality and authority of the title and so on. Even then, much of this is going to be done via Amazon, and the reviews section. However, yes it's entirely possible that an author will get their friends to review something, but in the long run, they'll always be found out.
Now, this is where the librarian comes into play. We are beginning to see the importance of a good social media reputation (that's one of the reasons why Facebook and Google are so keen on the like/+1 concept). People generally trust librarians, which is a good thing. If librarians can get involved with authors much more closely (which the authors will be keen to do, as they already are), it should be possible to start choosing good ebooks and alerting people to them, talking to other librarians about them, using them in book clubs and so on. Expert librarians are going to be able to take on a much more powerful alerting/reviewing role in the future. This already works in bookshops, with 'staff picks' and 'staff reviews', so it should be at least as powerful, if not more so, when librarians get involved.
I can see authors, and potential authors, asking librarians for advice on publishing. In fact, it's quite possible that a library could get directly involved with the publishing process and produce their own imprint. Universities have university publishers - why shouldn't libraries? Indeed, a library imprint would be a mark of authority in its own right. Furthermore, with self publishing of the physical item via publishers such as Lulu libraries could print physical copies if they were needed, and if necessary or if considered desirable, sell them.
This opens up huge potential for librarians and libraries to take on the role of both publisher and bookseller. If we start to think in those terms, their position becomes increasingly untenable, while the role and power of the information professionals begins to increase. Rather than libraries having to cap in hand to publishers, perhaps publishers need to think more clearly about coming to terms with our needs and requirements instead. As I've said before, libraries can become publishers and booksellers. Publishers and booksellers cannot become libraries.
The whole eBook saga is set to continue apace, and to be honest, is there anyone out there who is surprised by this? No... I thought not. There's a long way to go with this, and it's going to require a lot of thought by everyone concerned before we can reach some sort of compromise. I've been involved with a few things to do with them recently - I was on the Radio 4 programme You and Yours recently, and also in a written piece to accompany a BBC Click item as well as in The Bookseller which was reporting the Radio 4 programme.
Let's look at a few facts that I've gleaned from the quick research that I've been doing in this area. Libraries - while not yet making huge use of eBooks (according the MLA there are 33 public library services that offer eBook/audio borrowing out of a total of 151 Public Library Authorities) are certainly making inroads. One local authority reported to me that they have 55,000 loans from a stock of about 19,600 titles. Visits to library websites have risen to 120.2 million which is an increase of almost 90% over the the past four years.
Users are interesting - about 7% of online adults read eBooks, but they consume 41% of their books in digital format. A 'One Poll' poll recently found out that 6% of over 55s read electronically, which is slightly higher than the 5% of the 18-24 year old bracket. Most read on the Kindle - 47%, with the iPad covering 31% and the Sony reader with 14%. So it's still a fledgling market, but it does seem to suggest that people who like to read electronically really do like it. Speaking personally I'll always try and go for a Kindle version of a book instead of the print version when possible. Of course it's worth pointing out that my suspicion is that a lot of the eBook library users are those who can't get into the library due to shift work, opening hours, physical position, frailty, impairment and so on, and for them, eBooks are going to be an excellent way to read books.
The publishing industry is having problems with eBooks of course, and since I go back to the CD-ROM days I can see the same tired and worn arguments coming up that we had with information providers who were worried that putting data onto CD was going to destroy their database industry. Some publishers refuse to have anything to do with eBooks, others will not sell to libraries (so at least points to HarperCollins for that!), while Bloomsbury reported an 18 fold increase in sales in 2010. It's certainly looking to become a wealthy niche - $1 billion in 2010 and estimated to rise to $3 billion in 2015.
What about authors? There's certainly a fair number who are positively in favour of having their work available electronically. Neil Gaiman was fascinated to see that those countries in which his work is pirated (such as Russia) his work sold better than it had done before. Consequently, he put one of his titles up on his website for free for a month. Sales increased.
Cory Doctorow puts all of his materials onto the web without charging for them, and he has found that people will still buy his books. I read an online comic called Freak Angels but I also buy the print version as well. People will do this; it should not come as a surprise. We are not stupid - we know that a writer needs money to carry on writing. I will often buy books from small bookstores, even when I know that I could get them cheaper from Amazon (and I bet you do too), because it keeps them in business, means that they're there if I'm passing and its the right thing to do. People do not give money to charity because they're expecting some sort of physical reward - people do it because they think they should, it helps other people, they feel good doing it and any number of other reasons.
Take a look at the recent World Book Night, where thousands of people gave away copies of 25 different titles. Did this result in sales of the books slumping? Did it mean that people didn't bother to go into bookshops any more? No - quite the opposite, as The Bookseller reports. Sales of the titles soared by over 100% at W H Smith, amid a wider trade sales boost. People will often try books or authors for free in a library or eBook setting, discover that they like the series or author and will then go out and buy more copies. Libraries do not hinder book sales, they increase book sales. Yet, ironically in the same magazine, we have Publishers Association c.e.o. Richard Mollet trying to make the case that "If all consumers could borrow for free whenever they wanted, it would send a rocket through the retail market." A bit of news for Mr Mollet - libraries have been allowing consumers to borrow for free, whenever they wanted - and I don't see any disruption to publishers, authors or bookshops as a result.
So, finally to eBooks and libraries. I have described the HarperCollins 26 loans and you're done system as being backward looking and retrograde, and I still think it is. They are trying to view a book in the same way that they view print titles, but assuming that an eBook would theoretically 'wear out' after the 26 loans, forcing libraries to buy new copies. This is nonsensical, as the Oklahoma librarians showed in their YouTube video.
If the publisher is really keen on that model, then fine - but lets have a discussion with libraries about how many loans are appropriate. It's going to be a lot more than 26! We also should make the point that at the end of the eBook life libraries are not free to sell the withdrawn title, and they are initially purchased at full cost rather than at discount. Admittedly the publisher is offering a cheaper repurchase cost, but that doesn't happen with the print model. You can have it one way or another, but not both. It's either like a print book or it isn't.
So now we come to the librarian's attitude. There's a website that calls on libraries to boycott the publisher. I've looked at the 'site' and to be honest, it's childish and infantile. It's the sort of response that I'd expect from a pre-schooler. Now, I get that it's a tactic - clearly no library is really going to do this in any large scale manner. Not only because the publisher will hardly notice, but because it's doing damage to the library users/patrons/members, and that's not what we want. If libraries want to get involved, the way to do it is to offer to talk to publishers, the eBook providers (Overdrive), authors and anyone else interested. We need to get our heads around the idea that print books are not the same as eBooks, and they should be treated differently. We all need to work together to come up with a far more interesting and appropriate pricing model. HarperCollins is stupid to try and enforce a model, and libraries calling for a boycott are just as stupid.
I'm interested to see models such as LoveFilm working, where a subscription is paid for access to a library of films, which can be borrowed at an appropriate number per month. I like the Spotify approach where I pay £10 a month for unlimited access to their music collection. Both of these models recognise that we're in a different world, a world that doesn't rely on an artifact analogy.
However, I'm - as you might expect - going to come down on the side of libraries. We've been around a lot longer than publishers. Publishers have shown very limited understanding of the need to change their models - libraries on the other hand are flexible; we've had to be. Publishers are the ones who have most to lose here. If leading authors decide to self publish, set their own prices and cut out the publisher I'm not going to care. Authors will make more, libraries can deal direct and end users will still get their books. Publishers say that they provide quality control and checking. This is of course nonsense - there are plenty of remaineder bookshops to show that they get it wrong often enough. With an increase role to play in social media people can increasingly go to their friends, discover good authors, get the word out and sell more work. Libraries can help in this - in fact I think it's going to be an important future role for the profession. We can focus on writers, involve our communities, cross fertilise with other libraries, and we can assist new authors in getting their books into the market. This works in the music industry, and I see no reason why it shouldn't work with books.
So the tactic that I would like to see libraries use is not to boycott, because that's an old idea that doesn't really work. I'd like to see libraries point out to the publishers AND the users that by attempting to impose an outdated paradigm the publisher is hurting the end user and the author. Libraries need to offer to help publishers get to grips with new technology, and they should also start to point out that the people who will fail in trying to stick to out of date thinking are not the libraries, it's the publishers.
At the same time - librarians need to discover, research and start sharing with their colleagues and their users how to self publish, how to get books seen on the net. They need to get involved with writing classes and authors - but it's not like that isn't already happening, is it? We just need to do more of it. Our tactic, if we need a tactic is to embrace new technology, to understand the desire to create and publish information, prose, non-fiction and to assist the community in identifying new and good writers. Libraries can become publishers. Publishers cannot become libraries. Remember that.
The HarperCollins row continues apace. There's an excellent video doing the rounds at the moment in which 2 librarians show us how robust HarperCollins physical books are. You may remember that the publisher is justifying the requirement to repurchase the eBook version of 26 loans because that's about how long a physical book can stand up to the wear and tear of a library life. Let's take a look:
Huh. Fancy that - the physical versions are still looking pretty good to me. Of course, this is just the view of some librarians who - y'know, work with books all of the time. I'd be really interested to see the viewpoint from a HarperCollins representative, giving their side of the story.
Needless to say, (though necessary if you're a journalist it would seem), these are my views, and I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else, and it shouldn't be assumed that I am.