In his last column, Brian Kenney did a good and fair job of outlining the Douglas County Libraries e-book model, in which we host and manage our own digital content. Yet, his conclusion was a little puzzling.

Because the non-big six e-books we buy from publishers outside the big six vary in quality, and do not have the pre-existing demand of some of the major publisher’s titles, he suggested this somehow constitutes a return to the prescriptive purchases common at the dawn of librarianship. In an online comment, one librarian reader echoed that sentiment: “I am more interested [in] delivering content that my patrons want than in creating or more truthfully replicating a delivery model that might be better left to companies that do delivery service (OverDrive, 3M etc.).”

So, let me ask that reader: how’s that working for you?

The Facts

At DCL, it wasn’t hard for us to see that the current state of library e-books is not working for us. Each month, we do a monthly price comparison of print and e-book offerings, and here are some facts that have emerged from those reports.

First, many popular big six titles are simply not available for sale to libraries as e-books. If libraries are supposed to follow Baltimore librarian Charlie Robinson’s famous dictum, “give ’em what they want,” that’s a brick wall.

Of the top 15 fiction titles, more than half are forbidden to us in digital format. Right now, I can usually buy in print what is not available to us digitally. But as ALA’s Chris Harris noted in an ALA e-content blog post, recently we’ve seen the appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists of something new: titles that are only available as e-books. Certainly, the e-only book is inevitable—and if we can’t buy them, what then?

Currently, there is only one e-book title on the bestseller list that we can buy and own—Elisabeth Naughton’s Wait for Me, which was self-published via Smashwords. Now, here’s a bestselling author whose book our patrons want. If we have our own platform, we can buy and offer such titles to our patrons. If not, we can’t. And it’s reasonable to assume there will be only be more cases like this in the future.

And then there’s the price of Naughton’s book—under $4. In this case, the price was set not by publisher, not by distributor, but by the author, who gets most of that money. This brings me to another glaring issue: when it comes to price, libraries are getting screwed. Even when we can buy an e-book title, a consumer can buy the e-book version at a much cheaper price. In his column, Kenney referenced Jonathan Kellerman’s Guilt—well, a consumer can buy Guilt for $12.99. For libraries, the cost is $84.

This escalation of price, coming on the heels of a recession, represents a profound challenge to our purchasing power and; as a result, we are buying fewer books. And let’s be clear about this: the fewer books we have, the fewer books our patrons know about.

Owning the Future

In his column, Kenney asked if ownership matters anymore. Yes, it does, and for many reasons.

Sacrificing ownership means libraries open themselves up to unpredictable changes and charges—hosting, software revisions, changes in models that may require workflow changes on our part, license management schemes. And sacrificing ownership locks us into vendor relationships that can be predatory. OverDrive makes it clear that we don’t own the content we pay for, and 3M says it’s ours, but only if the publisher gives us permission to transfer it to another hosting service, for which we will no doubt be charged new platform fees.

Sacrificing ownership also sacrifices integration. Libraries try to make it easy for our patrons to find things. But with every new silo of digital delivery, the number of searches required to find something multiplies, creating a barrier to discovery. When we own content, we can better provide a seamless experience of searching, managing, and recommending. Yes, a few vendors are offering APIs—but not all APIs are equal or sufficient.

Sacrificing ownership also means we can’t sell off excess inventory. Used-book sales generate a little income for libraries, but more importantly, book sales get more books in more homes, helping to grow readers, and promoting literacy. In an e-book world, that opportunity is lost to libraries—although Amazon has filed a patent on a system to sell used e-books.

Sacrificing ownership also makes it harder for libraries to preserve the intellectual output of our culture. Do we really want to outsource that job to companies like Amazon, Google, or Overdrive? What if one of those companies goes under, suffers some great catastrophe, or decides to get out of the book business? And sacrificing ownership also sacrifices privacy. Confidentiality is a longstanding and fundamental library principle—for companies like Amazon and Google, not so much.

To support our approach to e-books, we helped develop a simple “Common Understanding” document, an attempt to save both parties the absurd, escalating costs of crafting and negotiating complex licensing agreements for e-content and to do business under commonly accepted, plain-sense terms. We want to buy your books. We’ll pay you for each copy. We’d like a discount, in order to buy as many as possible, and we’ll help you sell them, for a percentage of the sale. By default, we apply industry standard Digital Rights Management (DRM). Does it have to be more complicated than that?

Betrayal of Trust

On the face of it, librarians and people in the publishing industry have a lot in common. We love good literature. We delight in the discovery of new authors. We’re curious about the future. Together, we fight censorship. But it’s clear to most librarians that the big six’s stances on libraries and e-books is a transparent attempt to lock us out of the e-book market altogether—a stance that is itself a kind of censorship. Much of the tension between librarians and the big six feels like nothing so much as a betrayal of trust, a unilateral abandonment of our common purpose.

Part of the problem is that most of the communication between publishers and librarians has been filtered for the past generation through distributors. It’s possible that the terms and conditions on both sides of that deal haven’t worked to our mutual best interests. But over the past year, my library has been dealing directly with a number of independent publishers and authors, and it’s been an eye-opening experience.

A few of our findings: children’s publishers are the most innovative of the lot. They are pushing the boundaries of the book, adding value, and they have been eager to experiment with us. They see us as the frontier of a new market, and I think they’re right. In Douglas County, two million visitors a year come to our buildings, another two million to our Web site. They are looking for books—what’s new, what’s interesting.

We’re also learning from self-published authors. Many successful, competent, and accomplished writers have turned from traditional publishing to this more direct, do-it-yourself model. Why? They, not a corporation, retain control of their copyright, and they, not a corporation, get the lion’s share of the profit. I predict that in 2013 we’ll see several high-profile defections from the big houses to self-publishing. Will they prefer to work with distributors, or directly with libraries? We’ll see, but so far many Smashwords authors have indicated their willingness to give a copy of their works to us.

As the ALA has made clear, through presidents Molly Raphael and Maureen Sullivan as well as its the ALA’s various digital content working groups, the current big six-driven model of e-books and to libraries is unacceptable and unsustainable. Months of friendly conversations haven’t helped much to resolve the issues. But we’re finding that new, emerging streams of content are available to libraries from hundreds of other publishers out there which are more than willing to forge new relationships based on trust, mutual respect, and a spirit of experimentation.

This is clearly the right time for it. After all, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, the runaway hit of 2012, didn’t come from the world of commercial publishing. But none of our traditional distributors, acquisition systems, or reviewing organizations know very much about independent publishers, or the rising tide of self-publishing, the sector from which we expect more and more bestselling books will come.

Would Kenney have us ignore these trends until someone else works it all out? So far, only librarians seem to be paying much attention to the public interest.

Whither Librarianship?

It is true that, in the present moment, library patrons may not be coming to the library, or our Web site, in search of this new content, at least not in great numbers. But we’ve only started to explore ways to mine that content stream for gold, and to invent new ways to expose it to our patrons. They’ll tell us what they like, and when they do, we’ll buy more of it. But not if we never even try to present it to them.

And, finally, also at issue is the future of my profession—librarianship. How should we act? To me, the choices are stark: We can be passive and reactive, and sit back and wait for a handful of vendors to tell us how it’s going to be, at the cost of an ever-greater share of public funds being spent on ever-diminishing content and with less library control. Or, we can be active and exploring, constantly trying new stuff, eagerly celebrating the earliest phases of what is clearly a revolution in publishing, and teaming up with other innovators to nurture a new generation of creators.

Which one sounds like more fun? Which one sounds like the future?