I was just re-re-rewatching an old favorite movie the other day, The Philadelphia Story. Witty dialogue delivered by skilled and glamorous actors—what more could one ask for on a summer evening? And, as a bonus, a pivotal scene is set in the local public library!
In the scene, Jimmy Stewart, an author reduced to working at a tabloid magazine, runs across Katharine Hepburn, a socialite about to be married, who is reading a book of his stories at the library. As they wander back to her estate, she expresses shock that he’s not able to support himself as an author.
“People buy books, don’t they?” Hepburn asks.
“Not as long as there’s a library around,” Stewart replies.
Anybody reading this column likely knows where I’m going with this: the tensions now flaring in the library e-book market. In a memo to authors and agents last month, Macmillan CEO John Sargent all but blamed libraries for depressing book sales and author earnings. “Historically, we have been able to balance the great importance of libraries with the value of your work,” Sargent claimed. “The current e-lending system does not do that.”
I’m far from the first to observe this, but the claims in Sargent’s memo are questionable at best. Still, as the scene between Stewart and Hepburn illustrates, the antagonism between the publishing and library worlds reflected in Sargent’s memo is hardly new. And in watching recent events unfold in the library e-book market, it strikes me that the perennial question at the heart of the e-book debate predates and extends beyond the current state of the market: do publishers and authors see the library’s relationship to them as more symbiotic, or parasitic?
Librarians and library supporters are quick to cite numerous anecdotes and statistics to bolster claims that libraries benefit authors and publishers. Libraries encourage reading, which in turn generates sales, and, equally importantly, inspires future generations of authors. Yes, libraries also buy a ton of books every year. But throughout history, libraries have shown that their most critical role in the broader ecosystem of books and literature is to provide access to books to people who otherwise would not have it.
In the wake of Toni Morrison’s passing, her story about why she was fired from a library job as a teenager has been making the rounds. To summarize: instead of reshelving all the returned books, she read them. “That experience opened my eyes and shaped my future,” Morrison said. “That’s what libraries do.”
Yes. That’s what libraries do. So why is it now seen as a good strategy for publishers to choke off digital access to reading in libraries? Especially at a moment when so many diverse, fresh new voices are emerging in popular literature, and when so many other digital (often free) mediums are competing for the attention of readers and would-be authors, à la the teenage Toni Morrison?
Part of the problem, of course, is that the library e-book market is still fairly new. It’s been just over eight years since HarperCollins announced its 26-loan limit on library e-books, a halting attempt at thinking through the library e-book market that initially raised hackles among many librarians before cooler heads largely prevailed. And it took until the end of 2014 for the other major publishers, using a variety of models, to jump into the library e-book market. But whatever market equilibrium libraries and publishers had reached a few years ago now looks more like a fragile armistice than peace. And whatever it was, it appears to be ending, leaving us all to wonder, What happens now? How do we move forward?
Let’s start by stating the obvious: just about everybody who works in a library recognizes the value of publishers and authors. Librarians know that publishers and authors, both big and small, have to make money. We get it. Librarians also get that authors are under increasing pressure in the digital world, and that the publishing marketplace is increasingly complicated, with the rise of self-publishing, digital audiobooks, podcasts, and of course Amazon’s dominance.
Indeed, there are dark hints that the hand of Amazon is at work in the current tensions over library e-book lending, including reports that Amazon reps have been showing publishers data to portray library e-book lending in a negative light. That’s not surprising. It’s widely known that Amazon’s greatest and most valuable asset is the abundance of data it collects. And though we don’t know for certain whether Jeff Bezos is Claudius pouring poison in the ear of publishing executives (amusing as that is to envision), we do know that Amazon is using and will continue to use its dominant position and proprietary data to move the book business in ways that serve its interests, which could certainly include exploiting the natural tension between publishers and libraries.
Do I think that the major publishers are restricting e-book access because they don’t like libraries? No. But in competitive and fast-changing markets, people often act out of fear and shortsightedness at the expense of their long-term interests. What I do think, is that Macmillan and a few other major publishers’ actions in the e-book realm are based less in reality than in a specific perception (or misperception) of reality. And I’m afraid that until a more accurate perception of libraries takes root among publishing executives, it’s hard to see the library e-book market improving.
We have our work cut out for us. I’m not naive enough to think that some reincarnation of Bennett Cerf is going to show up and save the day. And I’ll admit it’s hard not to wonder who in publishing’s C-suites today recognizes that libraries are not the problem—that libraries are in fact publishers’ most steadfast partners in a literary ecosystem that, for generations, has fostered the highest-quality writing, generated sales, and helped society learn and grow. I am still idealistic enough, however, to believe that we can have a constructive and meaningful discussion. And I believe that if we do that, we will find a way to accommodate everybody’s interests—authors, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and, especially, readers. Remember them?
Cut back to the movie to close: as Hepburn and Stewart leave the library, he tells her that the title of her favorite story comes from an old Spanish peasant proverb—“With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.” Sound advice, then and now.
Joseph Janes is an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School and the author of Documents That Changed the Way We Live (Rowman & Littlefield).