After an eventful week in the press, ALA officials and publishers engaged in a cordial exchange over e-books yesterday at an event hosted by the Association of American Publishers at their Fifth Avenue offices. Under a strict admonishment not to talk about specific business models or policies, due to antitrust concerns, ALA president Maureen Sullivan explained the basis of an ALA open letter published this week, before opening up the floor for an open exchange with the 70 or so publishers in attendance.

“We hold very dear our role and mission of making sure the broader public, as diverse as it is, continues to have equitable access to information and content in whatever format it may be available,” Sullivan told publishers. “But we’re also very mindful that what we want to have is a healthy reading ecosystem and we clearly see publishers and others in that chain as critical—we want you to be successful. But was also want for our libraries to come to a place where there is equitable access to these materials at reasonable prices.”

The long-scheduled meeting comes just days after the ALA took its case to the public, via its open letter, which demanded publishers take action on the e-book issue, and drew a terse response from AAP in which it said it was “disappointed” in the ALA action.

The reason for the open letter, Sullivan explained, is that “the patience invested" by librarians in the ALA leadership over the last year of discussions has worn thin after months of no progress on the e-book issue. “That patience began to wear thin in the spring,” Sullivan said. “It certainly was wearing very thin at our annual conference in Anaheim in June. And I can tell you from the work I’ve started to do representing ALA, there is very little patience as it relates to our leadership on the [E-book] issue. So I felt compelled to issue that letter to make the case for why we in ALA, and librarians around the globe, think it is critically important to achieve this outcome of equitable access at reasonable prices.”

While cordial, executives from two major publishers challenged ALA officials during the exchange following Sullivan’s talk. Penguin VP for digital Tim McCall took umbrage with how he interpreted a part of Sullivan’s open letter.

“I want to address a particular phrase in your statement that I worry might become a mantra for librarians, and that is that you want the ‘same access’ for e-books that you get for p-books,” McCall said. “That indicates to me that there is a lack of understanding on the part of librarians. There is no such thing as same access and it worries me when that comes from the mouth of ALA leadership. It doesn’t show knowledge of the issues, and I know there is knowledge of the issues. I think it is unfair. And I think it leads to a lot potential problems.”

Sullivan clarified that she didn’t intend to suggest that libraries are insisting on the “same access” to e-books and print, but rather, that readers deserve that same access. In other words, whether in print, or digital, libraries should be able to make books available to their patrons, even if under different purchase terms for libraries. “We certainly recognize that e-books are a different character than the books in print and that that’s provided a set of challenges to you,” Sullivan replied. “What I think I said, and this is what we certainly believe and promote, is that we want to ensure that with e-books, there is equitable access, and that that access is at a reasonable price.”

“'Equitable access' is very different from what was put in print,” McCall responded, noting that while he appreciated the clarification, he hoped the “membership you lead is aware of that as well.” In her open letter, Sullivan wrote that the “library community demands meaningful change and creative solutions that serve libraries and our readers who rightfully expect the same access to e-books as they have to printed books.”

Wiley’s director of digital content sales Peter Balis later seemed to chastise librarians for not providing publishers with better ideas and more specifics on how publishers could sell their e-books. “You put a lot on us and it’s created...chaos,” Balis said, citing a myriad of different e-book models. He challenged librarians to "come back to us with more than just ‘equitable access at a fair price.’”

In response, Columbia University’s Robert Wolven pointed to a recent report from ALA’s Digital Content Working Group on aspects of current business models and said he would take Balis’s suggestion back to the group. After the event, Wolven told PW that while he agreed that libraries could offer more ideas, he didn’t think it was ALA’s place to recommend specific business models to publishers or libraries, noting that if ALA began endorsing e-book business models, it could chill experimentation from others at a time when competing, emerging models should be encouraged and tested.

The discussion was the second event hosted by AAP, which also hosted a discussion last year between libraries and publishers on the e-book issue. And while the e-book issue remains a point of contention, both sides were also quick to acknowledge the good historical working relationship between libraries and publishers. In addition, for all the press the big six publishers get for their e-book policies, and as intractable and "complex" as the issue may seem, Sullivan took a moment to thank the vast majority of publishers who do make e-books available to libraries. For the most part, however, es expected, the discussion was rudimentary, and friendly, with the real work to take place in individual meetings between publishers and librarians.