The relationship between publishers and libraries is not as acrimonious as it was back in 2012, when a few holdout publishers still refused to license e-books to libraries. Instead, the relationship feels to me like it has settled into that hallmark stage of a bad marriage—bitter resignation.
There’s just so much about the publisher-library relationship today that leaves me scratching my head. There are nearly 17,000 public library buildings in the U.S., and while there is a lot going in those buildings, their common denominator is books. What industry in America wouldn’t want the sort of taxpayer-supported marketing that libraries provide to publishers and authors? What industry wouldn’t want to nurture this mutually beneficial relationship? Yet, at best, publishers take this relationship for granted, and at times they take actions that endanger it.
But hey, it’s a new year, and I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. As any good marriage counselor would say, you can’t change everything at once. But below are three issues I believe we can work on right now to improve publisher-library relations.
Publishers: Ditch the PRH E-book Model
With the merger of Penguin and Random House in 2012, librarians were left to speculate which library e-book model would continue once the combined company unified its terms: Penguin’s (which licensed e-book copies for one year periods at regular consumer prices) or Random House’s (which licensed e-book copies for perpetual access but at significantly higher prices). No surprise, the Random House model prevailed. As of this year, all Penguin Random House e-book titles are now licensed on a perpetual-access model, with prices as high as $65 per copy for new releases, including bestsellers like Danielle Steel’s Blue and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.
Let’s call this what it is: bullying behavior. PRH—whose titles often make up half of any given bestseller list—is giving public libraries an impossibly hard choice. If we buy PRH e-books in sufficient numbers to meet demand, we are left with less money to acquire books from other houses, which stymies our ability to create diverse collections. If we hold back, we create a dissatisfied public and risk becoming irrelevant to our readers.
But the impact is even more far-reaching. For example, would I feature a PRH author as part of a discussion series? Not likely, because I could never be sure that I could afford enough digital copies. If you can’t back up your program with access, why bother?
As a library director, I’m admittedly a bit biased. But I’m not naïve. Before returning to libraries, I spent a decade in magazine publishing. I understand that information does not want to be free, and I am happy to pay handsomely for content that is priced fairly. I want publishers to thrive. But the PRH model undermines not only libraries but authors and readers, too.
Who knows, maybe someday we’ll all look back and laugh at the crazy, hazy days before multiple-access e-book models. But right now, I suggest PRH reconsider its e-book terms. We don’t need 50 digital copies of Blue forever. We need more flexibility.
Librarians: Stop the Book Shaming
Today, librarians who are passionate about books are increasingly like the smokers you see outside office buildings: apart, a little embarrassed, and slightly defensive. It’s hardly a surprise. Book collections? A vestige of our past, like the appendix. At conference after conference, keynote speakers argue that public libraries should be community centers, agents of innovation, knowledge creators, and makerspaces. It’s a trend made worse when LIS faculty (who really should know better) lead the charge.
It’s not that libraries aren’t successfully assuming all these roles—we are, and more. What rankles me is that we’ve always served these roles, albeit somewhat differently. Meanwhile, in survey after survey, the public still overwhelmingly views the library brand as books.
What today’s library elite seems to forget is that reading is a maker activity—and a profound one. When a reader engages with a text, her own experiences interact with the narrative to create something entirely new. This is what makes reading so rewarding: we each create our own distinct versions of the books we read.
If I were a publisher it would make me anxious to find my products not just shuffled aside but subtly disparaged, as leaders in the profession coach librarians to shake off their bookish image. As they say about Wall Street, it’s time for a correction. Let’s embrace our bookish selves; let’s unapologetically celebrate reading as the life-changing activity it is, and tout our role as reading experts. If we don’t, someone else surely will.
Publishers today are increasingly focused on the education market, and understandably so: there are far more teachers than librarians, and many of them have funds to purchase books for their classrooms. But publishers, when you take those language arts teachers out for expensive lunches, please don’t sell them on creating “classroom libraries.”
The classroom-library rhetoric has been around for a while, although it has ramped up lately. In part, it’s just dress-up. But it also feels like there is more something sinister at work. The idea of a classroom library is designed to appeal most to those who lack a proper school library (and a librarian). The message from publishers is clear: “Let us create that library for you.” But publishers, however large, cannot create good libraries on their own. Libraries are created by librarians, who pay attention to a variety of content, as well as reviews, reading level, medium, format, and kid appeal.
We can all agree that getting more books into the hands of more kids is a good thing. But let’s also agree that a stack of books in the corner of a classroom is not a library.
PW contributing editor Brian Kenney is director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library and a former editorial director of Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.