Last year was a year of progress for libraries on the e-book issue. But at an engaging ALA Midwinter 2014 session hosted by the Digital Content Working Group, librarians were urged not to be satisfied by recent developments, or complacent, but rather to look more deeply at their digital future.

The session kicked off with remarks from Sari Feldman, co-chair, ALA Digital Content Working Group, and executive director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library. Feldman ran down the advances of the last year.

“We now have all of the big five working with libraries,” she said, noting that the progress was in part due to “the excellent year-round outreach” of ALA leaders and working group members. “There is still a lot of work to be done , but we’re very excited about the ground we’ve covered.”

The most striking change, she said, has been the “change in the temperature” of the talks between libraries and publishers. “Questions previously were whether publishers should have library e-book lending,” she said. “The question now is how to do it. And there is much more openness and dialogue.”

Indeed, after a slow start that had some librarians concerned about the e-book future, the working group has proven to be very productive, and increasingly important. Now in its third year, DCWG has been out front and visible, and in 2014, members have been invited to present at the Paris Book Fair in March, in addition to a slated talk at the Public Library Association meeting in Indianapolis. In addition, the group is working with state officials in Connecticut as the state legislature studies e-books, and is working on digital copyright issues.

Not content with its progress, the question on tap at ALA Midwinter was where to go from here.


In his brief talk, Alan Inouye, director, ALA Office for Information Technology Policy, laid out some of the broader issues and challenges for libraries to consider.

For example, he pointed out that “the value proposition” for libraries had changed. With print book lending, libraries had for decades enjoyed a monopoly. But in the digital world, there is competition from commercial vendors. And, with digital lending, libraries are now competing for user attention with other kinds of digital content.

“It’s a very different kind of world,” Inouye said. “We have to think about what is the value added for libraries, and we keep coming back to the discoverability and exposure issues.”

Inouye also touched on other issues, from self-publishing, to pricing, to consortial buying. “Now we have basic access,” Inouye said. "But what is a fair price? What is the right price?” He urged libraries to offer their input to the working group.

It was clear, however, that ALA DCWG has a direction: As panel moderator Robert Wolven, co-chair, ALA Digital Content Working Group, and associate university librarian, Columbia University, noted in his talk, the library strategy will increasingly focus on authors.

“So far we have focused a good deal of work on different points in the supply chain,” Wolven said. “We have talked to many publishers, engaged them on their points of view, and lots of discussions with digital sellers, OverDrive and so forth. So now its time to turn to authors.”

To that end, Wolven noted that the universe of authors—and author desires—was broad, as different authors want different things. As an example, he went through a slide of two authors—J.K. Rowling, mega-bestselling author of the Harry Potter series; and Wolven himself, who publishes generally for academic reasons.

“Authors have different interests,” he said. “But they all want readers, recognition, and royalites.”

What Authors Want

Wolven then turned the program over to the day's featured speakers: Ginger Clark, literary agent, Curtis Brown LTD, New York City, and a board member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives; and Peter Brantley, director, Scholarly Communications, and contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.

In their talks, Clark and Brantley offered a good look at where the ALA DCWG is: one foot in the present, and one foot on stepping toward the future.

Clark began her talk by by explaining her role as an agent—basically functioning as an author’s business manager, with services ranging from editorial advice to negotiation, contract drafting, tax planning, and other things.

Clark, clearly well-versed in the long and winding road of the e-book, suggested that authors are indeed amenable to libraries offering e-books—but the digital age is just beginning to unfold, with many lessons to be learned and battles to be fought, they were cautious.

The biggest battle: digital royalties. Clark spoke at length on the developments that have now more or less left digital royalties at 25% of net revenues—a split that she says has left authors with a smaller cut of the profits.

“This is what authors are concerned about,” Clark said. “We have to balance connecting with readers with also making money. And I hope you can understand that.” Clark stressed that authors really do want to connect more with readers via libraries, but too often, the e-book decisions are out of their hands. But authors are paying attention, she said, and “authors do want to know about these issues.”

Clark also said she believed the security was not a concern, and that libraries have demonstrated that they can lend e-books safely. She also suggested that libraries can help fight piracy, by getting content out in a “cheap and legal manner.”

In sum, authors are “fine with libraries,” Clark said. “They just want a fair share of the money.”

In his talk, Brantley offered a longer view of the digital issues libraries now face, a talk he conceded was a little more “edgy” and “a little less relevant to daily life today,” but nonetheless vital for libraries to consider as they think about how to position themselves for the future.

Brantley spoke of the way authorship is changing with the advent of digital, web-based tools, and of the clash between tech culture and traditional publishing culture that has marked the early history of the e-book.

But, there is “a growing sense of comfort,” he said, as a leading edge of publishers are thinking more boldly about the reach of Internet tools and “what it means to publish an author's material.”

Brantley also spoke about a growing sense of "digital craft" that will expand and enrich the storytelling and information environments. With the advent of web-based tools, storytelling is moving into a new space where creators can do things beyond simple replication of text, or additional media. But he was quick to add that not every e-book needs to offer gaming or a rich interactive experience.

“Text will still be a primary mode of storytelling, because of its low barrier to entry,” he said. “But text online is inherently addressable by machines, and is linkable,” he said, which is creating an exciting, powerful new environment, and is giving authors the ability to “gain more control back” over the production and exploitation of their work.

With digital tools, “Authors can now see themselves as the locus of production,” Brantley said. "They can think more about publishing for themselves [as businesses]." And, he said, it can liberate them in terms of offerings, from e-books, to short stories, and other creative fragments that previously might never have been brought to market.

He cautioned, however against the current state of the market, with companies like Amazon and its Kindle Direct Publishing platform snapping up self-published works, and making huge inroads in certain genres.

“There is a growing gap between what is really on the market and what libraries can provide through e-book lending channels,” Brantley said. “This is more a political point. A market in which authors only have Amazon KDP to handle their books is not a healthy market. There is a real role for libraries to start thinking about how to reach authors directly…It is okay for Amazon to be a discovery agent, but personally, I don’t think it is okay for Amazon to be a primary source for a big chunk of literature in the coming years.”

From such a big, technologically sweeping view, Brantley brought it all back to a simple, narrow calling for libraries: the need to sieze the opportunity to work with local authors in their communties. "[E-book] lending might be problematic," he said. "But working with local authors is not."

In response to a question from NYPL's Josh Hadro about libraries hosting original community content, Brantley reiterated his point with emphasis, invoking a recent series of posts from author Hugh Howey.

“I almost wanna pound my hands on table and say this is really important stuff and nobody is addressing it," he said. "There is so much energy focused on getting books from the Big 5, and under what terms and what prices and how many copies, but the fact of the matter is that there is whole new world of publishing exploding right before our eyes and we’re not doing anything about in any kind of concerted way. I think we need to do that.”