When I left magazine publishing and returned to working in libraries a year ago, I promised myself one thing: when it comes to e-books, I wouldn’t get my boxer shorts into a twist.

It hasn’t been easy.

Of course, I’m an optimist, and despite all the industry gossip, I refused to believe that the situation could get worse.

But in the past year, Penguin broke off its relationship with Overdrive, Random House increased its pricing several-fold, while some other publishers soldiered on in silence with their multiyear, e-book library pilot experiments.

Not helping matters were the publishing execs who continued making nutty claims, asserting that a reader sitting on her sofa could download an e-book from any library Web site in the country or—my personal favorite—blaming librarians for not developing and proposing a successful e-book business model for publishers.

Librarians have reacted by threatening to give up on e-books—most notably Sarah Houghton, whose blog post, “I’m breaking up with e-books (and you can too),” captured the frustration of public librarians everywhere.

Thanks to Sarah, we all gave up on e-books, right there, on the spot. Then we all woke up the next morning and sheepishly paid our Overdrive bills.

If we can’t give up on e-books, other library leaders told us, then at least we need to own our e-books, not license them. I guess, faced with uncertainty, it’s tempting to grab on to the one model you know: buy the book, catalogue the book, lend the book.

Meanwhile, our professional associations—AAP and ALA—have been volleying back and forth with the level of effectiveness their respective members have come to expect. The bottom line? They’re disappointed in each other.

Has It Ever Been This Bad?

I’m no historian of publishing–library relations, but to find a period as bleak as this, we probably have to skip over the AAP’s stand on Open Access and jump back to 1966—stay with me for a moment—and the Senate’s hearings on the price fixing of library books. Sound familiar?

It was Marvin Scilken, then the young director of the Orange (N.J.) Public Library, who blew the whistle on the growing practice of publishers and wholesalers requiring libraries to purchase “library editions” costing 50% more than trade editions—claiming they were better bound—and making it impossible for libraries to acquire discounted trade editions. Most of these library editions were physically no different from trade. The practice started with children’s books, spread to YA, and, it was feared, would soon overtake adult publishing.

In its déjà vu all over again way, the testimony makes for a gripping read.

My favorite quote came from the managing director of the American Book Publishers Council: “we are going through a period of stress and strain, to be expected whenever a highly competitive free-enterprise economy moves to adjust to a radically new situation. Inevitably there are some pinches in the process.” Among the “stresses and strains” in the 1960s was the explosion in federal funding for libraries in the post-Sputnik world, especially money aimed toward kids and school libraries.

Guess who was getting the pinch back in 1966?

If anyone heading to ALA’s Midwinter Meeting wants to put on a reader’s theater version of the hearings, I’m game. Best of all, it has a happy ending: the inquiry resulted in thousands of lawsuits, returning millions to libraries.

Back at my library, today, none of this is helping, at least not here on the reference desk, where an aging hipster stands across from me, tapping the screen on his wafer-thin iPad. “Don’t you think it’s ironic that you don’t have a digital copy of Steve Jobs?” he asks. The Isaacson bio has really flushed out the irate iPad readers.

What’s ironic, I want to say, is that after we’ve purchased eight copies in print, the digital audio book, the large-print edition, the Spanish edition, and likely another armful of the paperback edition when that comes out, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, still refuses to develop a model where we can lend you the e-book.

Instead, I try to explain that the publisher won’t license e-books to libraries, hand him Simon & Schuster’s contact information, and find him a print copy.

Making the E-book Reader

I say kudos to any librarian who’s managed to kick the e-book habit. But what are they doing about the e-book reader?

I’m not talking about the Steve Jobs guy. I’m talking about the hundreds of people that come into my library every year—and no doubt yours as well—who want us to help them “make it work.” Many are middle-aged or older. They’ve got a brand new Nook or a year-old Kindle they’ve never unpacked. Lots have iPads they’ve only used for e-mail, Facebook, or Pinterest. Inevitably, something has happened. They now need a book for a reading group or are about to take a flight to Australia, and they are ready to make the digital leap.

In 2012, we saw a lot of excellent data emerge that demonstrates that library borrowers are book buyers, and that in the reading ecology, library use and book buying are connected in myriad ways. But based on their actions, or inactions, it’s pretty clear that many publishers just don’t care, or just don’t buy it—which makes this e-book mess all the more galling.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy helping people with their devices and I believe it’s fully within our mission. But we aren’t teaching users just to borrow e-books, we’re showing them how to move their lives as readers—book borrowers, sharers, and buyers—online. Libraries are now devoting bigger and bigger chunks of our most serious resources, our staff, to helping people enter a market in which we are barely allowed to participate.

And you wonder why we’re so ticked off?

Thanks for the Old Books

There’s no way around it. If you are a library offering e-books to your community, you need to throw away any expectations about creating a positive user experience. I’m not talking about your interface. I’m talking about the holistic experience: multiple formats, draconian DRM, poor integration with the catalogue, not to mention competing platforms.

The best thing a library can do is be transparent: the situation is a mess, it’s likely to get worse, here’s why, talk to us. But if you want to borrow e-books, as RuPaul would say, you better work.

Take my own, medium-sized library in White Plains, N.Y. We have an Overdrive collection for our residents. Our regional consortium has its own Overdrive collection—a second place to search. Just to keep readers on their toes, only the consortium’s titles are in our shared catalogue. Plus, we have Freading and its token system—which is kind of fun, actually. And there are the free e-book collections we point to. The situation can be even more confusing at larger libraries.

That e-books still manage to circulate so well is either a testament to the tenacity of e-book readers or the low expectations of library users, conditioned by years of battling through systems. When publishers started talking about friction, I could only laugh. Friction R Us.

When it comes to e-books, it would seem, librarians are meant to have an attitude of gratitude, no matter what model publishers offer us. Even if we can’t license their e-books until they are six months old.

Meanwhile, my library—like many others—has done everything we can to push our budget toward the frontlist. We buy little reference. We’ve dropped most of our databases—hardly anyone used them anyway. All so we can put our money where it counts—current books.

Backlist? When I hear the word backlist, I think of ordering extra copies of the first two seasons of Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey—not replacement copies of Lillian Jackson Braun.

At six or eight months, books are moving out of my new book area and into the low-trafficked stacks. Interest in these titles has dramatically waned. Duplicates are being withdrawn.

Maybe it’s a little different if you’re a library on the scale of New York Public. But what would it take for me to buy a six- or an eight-month-old book, digital or not? An Oprah-like moment, a movie release, or a major award.

A publisher offering us only older titles in digital format reminds me of the patron who arrives in the library on Saturday afternoon with a box of used books and Reader’s Digests, thinking we’ll be thrilled to have them. Thanks, but no thanks.

New Year’s Wishes

What do I want to come in 2013? What I want is simple: more chaos.

I have no interest in trying to replicate our old print models or owning e-books. I’m enough of a librarian to want someone out there to maintain a permanent copy—but please don’t make it be me. My collection is dynamic and ever changing. There are few titles I want to access after three years, fewer still after eight. I want business models that will support this fluidity. I actually like the model created by HarperCollins—once reviled, now our BFF—but I would welcome different models. I’ll entertain paying per use or licensing for a year—or five years.

Inherent in the digital book is the promise of change, and I want that promise realized. I no longer expect a blanket model from all publishers and accept the messiness this brings.

I trust my readers, and want them to help choose what titles we should license. Patron-driven acquisitions has received its share of attention in the academic world; it’s time to experiment with popular literature.I want to serve my community. I want publishers to thrive. And I want libraries to flourish.

I want a New Year.

ALA 2013: All Our Coverage