In August 2012, Robert Wolven, associate university librarian at Columbia University, and co-chair of the ALA’s recently chartered Digital Content Working Group (DCWG), tried to put a brave face on the state of relations between libraries and publishers when it came to subject of e-books. “Mixed” is how Wolven described the state of affairs in an interview with PW. That was, he later conceded, a generous assessment.
At the time, the outlook for library e-books was bleak. In its first ever report, “E-Book Business Models for Public Libraries,” the nascent group catalogued a frustrating patchwork of restrictive publisher policies and models, confusing vendor products, and overly complicated user experiences that made up the world of library e-books.
“Some major trade publishers will not sell e-books to libraries under any terms,” the report noted. “Others do so only at inflated prices or with severe restrictions.” And, most worrying, libraries appeared to be “making little or no headway” at all in their dealings with publishers.
Assembled in June 2011 by ALA president Molly Raphael, the DCWG was determined to reach out to publishers and discuss the e-book issue. This was a dialogue, ALA officials stressed, not a negotiation. But as dialogues go, it got off to a rough start.
In fact, through much of the group’s early days, the e-book situation for libraries was only getting worse. In early 2011, Hachette abruptly pulled its frontlist e-book offerings, and later doubled its library prices on nearly 3,500 backlist e-book titles. In November, 2011, Penguin had pulled its entire list. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, were still not in the game at all. And librarians took note.
Soon after the June 2012 ALA annual conference in Anaheim came the nadir. Over that summer, the tone and tenor of the e-book conversation among rank-and-file librarians changed.
In an editorial, Library Journal editor Francine Fialkoff opined that progress was needed immediately, and that “ineffectual committees don’t cut it anymore.” Sarah Houghton, director for the San Rafael (Calif.) Public Library, portrayed e-books as bad boyfriends in a post on her personal blog, Librarian in Black. It went viral. “Why in hell are we covering for a bad situation?” she asked. “Who gains from us putting a happy face on the dismal e-book situation in libraries?”
Andy Woodworth, a librarian from the Bordentown (N.J.) Library who started a petition to protest HarperCollins’s 26-lend limit in 2011 (garnering a whopping 70,000 signees), also protested. “Quite frankly, I’ve heard enough about a demand for leadership to rise up and lead the Pickett-like charge for library e-book lending,” he wrote. “I want to see leadership for the ‘walk the fuck away’ camp.”
In September 2012, the ALA leadership posted an open letter on the ALA web site, bringing the simmering e-book issue to the public. “We librarians cannot stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide,” wrote ALA president Maureen Sullivan. “We cannot wait passively while some publishers deny access to our cultural record. We must speak out on behalf of today’s—and tomorrow’s—readers.”
The Association of American Publishers responded with a statement of its own. It expressed “disappointment.”
A year into the ALA Digital Content Working Group’s mission to break through the digital ice with publishers, things appeared to be spinning out of control. “It was a struggle,” recalls Alan Inouye, director of the ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) and DCWG program manager.
But just a few months later, in January 2013, the ice did finally break. Macmillan announced that it would soon begin an e-book pilot project with libraries, its first foray into e-book lending. And from there, things snowballed.
Simon & Schuster announced that it, too, would launch its first e-book pilot. Penguin, also got back in the game. And just before the 2013 ALA annual conference in Chicago, Hachette officials announced they would once again make their complete catalog available to libraries. By the end of 2013, the library e-book landscape suddenly brimmed with promise.
At the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, Sari Feldman, DCWG co-chair and executive director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, kicked off an update session by telling attendees the good news: all five of the major publishers were now lending e-books. And, perhaps more importantly, she noted, the “temperature in the room” had changed dramatically.
Wolven is reluctant to give too much credit to the DCWG for the positive momentum on the e-book issue. Much of the progress is likely due to the fact that the publishers’ own data ultimately reflected what the DCWG had been saying all along: that libraries are not a danger, but are, in fact, good for them. “I think there’s been a combination of factors at work,” he says. “But certainly the direct conversations between ALA’s leadership and the major publishers have helped immensely.”
Certainly, as both librarians and publishers will attest, the dialogue between them has been instrumental to making progress on the e-book front.
“On the library side, we’ve been able to feel that publishers are at least willing to listen and discuss ways to make the relationship work,” Wolven says. “And the publishers are able to feel that careful, measured steps forward will be seen as positive movement. Overall, there’s more recognition that the situation is complex, and a trust that we can work together to find answers that work for both publishers and libraries.”
No longer labeled an “ineffectual committee,” the ALA DCWG is now widely regarded as a success. And, given the prominence of digital issues in libraries, it could well be among the most important ventures the ALA has ever launched. But looking back, it all could have been different, if not for a few key strategy decisions, support from ALA leaders—and a whole lot of patience.
Staying the Course
From its conception, the ALA DCWG has always had a broad mandate to focus on the longer-term digital issues facing libraries and readers, issues that extend beyond e-books (it is the “digital content” working group, after all, not the “e-book” working group).
Feldman calls the 25-member group "a model of collaboration" because members come from all kinds of libraries with all kinds of issues, from public libraries dealing with current e-books, to academic libraries facing preservation challenges, or library access for the print disabled. "We've had an amazing talent pool to focus on near term and long term focus," Feldman says, "and the group has been extremely nimble in its working style, which has increased effectiveness."
But, early on, with e-books sucking up the oxygen from nearly every library conversation, the group decided that progress on the current impasse over library e-books was the key to its future.
“At first, it was really important to devote most of our energy to securing a basic level of e-book access for libraries,” Wolven says. The calculation, he explains, was that movement in that arena would enable the group to turn its attention effectively to more “experimental and innovative developments.” But as the early talks failed to yield tangible progress, staying the course amid mounting librarian frustration proved to be a major challenge.
“When we started, the impatience was real, widespread and strongly felt,” Wolven says. “I think the appointment of the working group, its visibility, and the fact that we started holding high-level meetings with publishers fairly quickly helped stave off a bit of the pressure. But we also made it clear in those meetings with publishers that any breathing room we had wouldn’t last long, and that the impatience would return in full force unless there was some visible progress.”
Still, things moved slowly. “In the early meetings in 2012, some publishing executives were pretty negative, even hostile at times,” Inouye says. “Their focus was on the fear that library sales would cannibalize consumer sales, and how library patrons or others would defeat security systems so that licensing agreements would be compromised. ”
Meanwhile, Inouye adds, the librarians’ united front was in danger of fracturing.“During 2012, pretty much every conceivable idea for advocacy emerged—ALA should do this. ALA should do that. There was pressure to pursue myriad avenues,” Inouye recalls. “But we realized that following such a path would be detrimental, because our efforts would be spread too thin. So we made a bet on the direct engagement with publishers.”
Feldman credits ALA leadership for putting the resources, time, and effort into the DCWG, and into keeping rank-and-file librarians—that is, the librarians fielding patron complaints on a daily basis—in the loop. The past two ALA presidents, Molly Raphael and Maureen Sullivan, and the current president Barbara Stripling “are all personally invested,” in the DCWG, Feldman notes, adding that throughout it all, the DCWG “felt very supported.”
By early 2013, the patience and time invested in establishing an open dialogue between libraries and publishers was finally yielding dividends. “In the beginning, some publishers’ staffs simply didn’t know much about libraries, which wasn’t surprising,” Inouye says. “They were general management, or focused on the emerging digital business, so they didn’t focus on the library segment on a regular basis. And, we librarians didn’t know much about the internals of the publishing industry, much less the digital book business. All of us have learned a lot over the past few years.”
In retrospect, Inouye says the focus on the near-term issue of securing a minimum level of e-book access was appropriate for one important reason: it has enabled the group to establish open lines of communication with leaders in the publishing community—something Feldman regards as unprecedented. And beyond the recent positive developments in e-book access, those now established lines of communication, Inouye adds, will be critical over “the long haul.”
The Long Haul
Three years in, the ALA DCWG is now expanding beyond the e-book issue that dominated its early years. “At first, the attention, from publishers, the media, and ALA members, was on the near-term problems, which was appropriate,” Inouye notes. “At the same time, we’ve always understood that libraries, and the entire reading ecosystem, are undergoing fundamental change, and we need to address many other issues besides e-book licensing arrangements.”
Indeed, to accept that the future of reading is digital is also to accept that the rules that have governed our reading culture for centuries are being changed—and almost exclusively in corporate boardrooms.
Unlike print books, digital reading is subject to a host of technical issues: DRM, standards, and an array of proprietary platforms. As any librarian will tell you, our literary and reading culture has been built on a pass-along factor—you finish a great book and you give to your spouse, or donate it, or lend it, or even sell it. But to many emerging digital platform providers and major publishing corporations, that historic act of cultural enlightenment is now regarded as a lost sale—and, in the name of piracy, is often blocked by technology.
Furthermore, since e-books are licensed access products, readers (and libraries) don’t actually own them. How many readers actually take the time to read, much less understand the click-on licenses to which they must agree before downloading an e-book? What does this portend for the preservation of our literary culture?
Equity-of-access issues also persist: millions of the poorest Americans lack access to the basic technology required by e-books, whether that’s an e-reader, the Internet, or a credit card (you can’t buy e-books with cash). And, there are privacy issues. For decades, libraries have held a fundamental belief that your reading is your business. In the digital age, that core principle is under attack.
But perhaps the most glaring “long-haul” question is simply this: who will represent the public interest in our emerging digital reading culture? How do we balance the need for a sustainable publishing industry and preserve the values that have sustained a vibrant ecology of ideas for centuries? In this capacity, the ALA, and the Digital Content Working Group may be the closest thing the public has to a seat at the table, as publishers and platform providers develop the digital future.
“I think this is a really important point,” says Wolven, noting that the DCWG does indeed see itself with a charge to represent the interests of readers. “Libraries are not an end in themselves,” he says. “We exist to fulfill and promote important societal roles.”
At the ALA annual conference in Las Vegas, e-books and digital content will once again be a hot topic. And building on their success, the ALA DCWG will be there to update members on the issues—present, and future.
Certainly, the current state of the e-book lending market will be on the agenda. In a welcome development at the recently concluded BookExpo America, the user experience was front-and-center on one panel, which featured the leaders of six major e-book lending services. In a frank observation, Jeff Jankowsi, v-p at Midwest Tape, which now offers a streaming e-book model on its Hoopla platform, brought librarians to applause when he argued that creating a better experience for library users is vital.
“I think the one-user, one-copy model has already pissed off so many cardholders that they’re never coming back because they are so frustrated,” he said. “I think working together with libraries and giving patrons a better user experience is going to help create a hedge against some big retailers,” he added, speaking to the publishers in the room. “Libraries don’t want to squeeze you and leverage you for margins. Librarians are reasonable, and libraries are willing to pay a decent amount of money for a better experience.”
Wolven says that with all of the Big Five publishers now offering e-books to libraries, and with a host of competing services to manage those lends, DCWG is beginning to shift the focus to other issues: for example, there are the hot-button issues of pricing and how e-book models might work for library consortia. Digital access for schools, and for the print-disabled are also important issues, Feldman adds.
The group will also continue its outreach to authors. At the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting, in Philadelphia, Peter Brantley, director of Scholarly Communication at startup hypothes.is (and a contributing editor at PW) gave a rousing talk on the importance of libraries directly engaging creators.
In what he conceded was an “edgy” presentation, Brantley talked about the powerful new digital authoring tools that will empower future generations of creators, and urged librarians to look beyond current e-book market developments, warning that companies like Amazon (with its proprietary Kindle Direct Publishing platform) are snapping up self-published works and making huge inroads in certain genres.
“I almost want to pound my hands on table and say this is really important stuff,” Brantley told attendees. “There is so much energy focused on getting books from the Big Five, and under what terms and what prices and how many copies, but the fact of the matter is that there is whole new world of publishing exploding right before our eyes.”
For Feldman, this year’s ALA will also mark the beginning of new chapter. She is now the president-elect of ALA, with her term beginning in 2015.
“It was my work on the DCWG that inspired me to run,” she told PW. “Working on the Digital Content Working Group with all the different divisions and roundtables really opened my eyes to the power of the organization has when we work together toward a common goal. It was very exciting for me to see how effective our association can be in terms of impacting a national issue.”