Talks between librarians and publishers are set to continue this week on the long-simmering e-book issue, including an AAP-sponsored discussion featuring ALA president Maureen Sullivan on September 27. Frustrated by a lack of progress, however, and in some cases regression, on the e-book issue, ALA officials are taking their case beyond the boardrooms, directly to their patrons and supporters. In an open letter obtained by PW [and now up on the ALA Web Site], ALA president Maureen Sullivan raises the stakes in the e-book debate, asking readers: “which side will you be on.”

In the letter, Sullivan stresses that libraries can no longer “stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide,” or “wait passively while some publishers deny access to our cultural record.” She argues that readers should “rightfully expect the same access to e-books as they have to printed books,” and demands publishers explore more creative solutions.

“We have met and talked sincerely with many of these publishers,” Sullivan writes. “We have sought common ground by exploring new business models and library lending practices. But these conversations only matter if they are followed by action.”

The letter marks a shift in strategy after nearly a year of mostly cordial talks between libraries and the big six publishers on the issue of e-book access. Over the course of the discussions, however, e-book access has actually gone backwards. In February, Penguin pulled out of the market entirely (in June, Penguin started a pilot project with vendor 3M and the New York Public Library), and in March, Random House nearly tripled its e-book prices to libraries. Just last week, Hachette awkwardly announced it would more than double prices on nearly 3,500 backlist e-book titles, drawing a terse response from Sullivan. “Now we must ask,” Sullivan said in a statement, “with friends like these...?”

Currently, Simon & Schuster does not sell to libraries at all. In a spot of good news, holdout Macmillan has been working on a pilot e-book lending plan, but is not yet ready to announce details. HarperCollins caps library lends at 26 circulations per copy.

The open letter comes on the heels of another public-oriented tactic for libraries—the publication of a monthly pricing report for books on the New York Times bestseller list. The report, compiled by the Douglas County Libraries (Colo.) and published with the help of the ALA on the American Libraries Web site, shows that many books on the New York Times lists are not available to libraries at all in e-book format, and, of those that are available, markups for libraries are up to six times the consumer price for the same title. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, for example, is available for $9.99 at Amazon, but libraries pay $47.85. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is $12.99 at Amazon, but $81 from both 3M and OverDrive.

“We get a lot of questions from our patrons about why we don’t have more of these bestselling titles in digital format,” explained DCL director Jamie LaRue in a blog post. “From now on, we’ll hand them this report, and point out the obvious: some e-books we can’t buy at all and others are so much more expensive than print that it doesn’t make good business sense to invest in them.”

In its open letter, the ALA refers to the situation reflected in the pricing report. “If our libraries’ digital bookshelves mirrored the New York Times fiction bestseller list,” the letter states, “we would be missing half of our collection any given week due to these publishers’ policies. The popular Bared to You and The Glass Castle are not available in libraries because libraries cannot purchase them at any price. Today’s teens also will not find the digital copy of Judy Blume’s seminal Forever, nor today’s blockbuster Hunger Games series.”

In an interview, Sullivan told PW she was looking forward to addressing the AAP gathering—although she confessed some mild apprehension. “The Hachette decision really highlighted in a very strong way that the need for libraries to make e-books available is not fully understood and accepted,” Sullivan said. Going forward, Sullivan suggested, the tone of the talks will likely shift. “Particularly, what we want to do is to have a much more aggressive stance, and to make it clear to publishers that it is important that there be a response. We need to have access to e-books, and it needs to be at a reasonable price.”


Sullivan remains optimistic that communication can lead to a breakthrough, but acknowledged that the issue may be approaching an impasse. “There is an ever-increasing sense of urgency that something has to happen,” she conceded. “Someone a few weeks ago told me that it feels like we are on the brink of a revolution here, and I think what's been challenging for ALA is that we recognize the need to have open dialogue, to build relationships, and to ensure we all have as accurate an understanding of the full picture as possible. But we continue to feel a real sense of urgency that content, in whatever format, must be available.”

The debate over library e-books comes at a time when publishers are already under public scrutiny for their consumer e-book practices, notably in the form of the lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice. Which raises the question: should dialogue ultimately not yield any progress, is there a legal or legislative action looming?

“Certainly, that’s been brought up,” Sullivan said, although she quickly added that libraries are committed to working with publishers as partners. “But what we hold in common here with Congress and the DoJ is serving the best interests of the reading public,” she added. “We serve the communities, but the Department of Justice and Congress have responsibility for setting good public policy.”