Tag Archives: libraries

Some Reactions to Amazon’s New Library Lending Deal

1. I admit, when I first heard that Amazon and OverDrive were collaborating to make Kindle ebooks available through libraries, my very first reaction was to download the Kindle app for iPhone so I could finally check out library books on the go. Free reading on those hour-long bus rides to downtown? Hooray!

2. On the other hand, I’ve spent about ten years working in/around independent bookstores, and I’ve seen firsthand how Amazon has progressively chipped away at the rest of the print book industry. If only I had a dollar for every time I helped a customer locate some book they heard about on NPR, but they couldn’t remember the title or the author, and they think it was something about history—and when I am able to actually find that title and author and often the actual book in a matter of seconds, they look at the price tag and hand the book back and say, “I’ll get it for cheaper on Amazon …”

If I had a dollar, I tell you, for every time that had happened, I still couldn’t afford the fancy French jet that Jeff Bezos reportedly uses to get around.

Cover image for The Great International Paper Airplane Book, with a paper jet, paper helicopter, and some other fancy folded paper in the background.
I could definitely afford to buy this book with those dollars, though.

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The Myth of the Lost Sale

{This is Part 3 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 can be found here.

This post was originally scheduled to go up on Friday, but due to an unexpected visit from the Migraine Fairy it had to be postponed.}

I have been talking a lot about entitlement from a publisher/reader perspective, and in this final installment it is time to turn to entitlement as it appears in authors.

This is probably a bad idea. There is all kinds of trouble I can get into by even trying to talk about this—not least, the possibility of offending other readers and authors. But some of these ideas have been buzzing around in my bonnet for some time, and they’re getting quite loud. So if I get something wrong, please chime in and tell me what I’ve screwed up.

By critiquing the notion of lost sales, I do not mean to imply that piracy is not a real issue. But the dialogue surrounding piracy often seems to get in the way of making things better, for authors and readers and publishers.

Pirates are Thieves

Author Tobias Buckell has a must-read article on book piracy that deals with a familiar hypothetical:

Author says the following: “If each of those pirates had purchased a book, each of those downloads would equal XXXX dollars, and I’d be making double my current income. Thus, those pirates have taken half my income and are keeping me in the poor house.”

But that requires a very huge basic assumption. That each of those downloads was a potential sale.

In the terms I’ve been using in this series, the author who feels that all piracy is money stolen from instead of money never received feels entitled to those revenues. But those revenues are imaginary: many of the people who downloaded that book for free would never have touched it if there had been a price tag. Bucknell again:

So from the author’s perspective, a certain portion of these ‘stolen’ books aren’t actually stolen. *They were not going to be sales to begin with.* They’re stolen from a cup that was never going to fill.

Those sales are not “lost”; they have not been misplaced; they did not drop down into the couch cushions with those quarters and that lint-covered cherry Mike and Ike. They would never have happened.

I get very uneasy when people get furious—really furious—about piracy, especially when they assume that as an author I naturally do too. Yes, you should absolutely report violations of your copyright to your publisher. Yes, you should send a professionally-worded email asking the site to take down the file(s) in question. Those are your rights as an author and copyright holder. But to claim that a measurable financial loss has taken place seems a little too facile to me.

Maybe I’ll change my tune when my own books start showing up on those pirate sites. (So far, not yet!)

An engraved image of famous female pirate Anne Bonny, in men's clothing, firing a pistol and looking dashing while a galleon sails away in the background.
“Arr—give me all yer Harry Potters!”

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Of Titles and Time

{This is Part 2 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 3 will appear tomorrow.}

It is a plain fact that people who read more buy more books. And like any other reader, I have a list of favorite authors I discovered at random in the local library stacks—authors such as Terry Pratchett, who I found in battered paperback form in the library back when Borders was the only place Stateside you could find new Discworld novels, which I know because I checked that Borders shelf every week and bought any one I didn’t already have, even if I’d already checked it out and read it at the library. And what’s more, over time I’ve bought half that series in hardback and all of it in paper, and I have three copies of Good Omens, and when I worked in bookstores I hand-sold countless copies of Pratchett’s works to untold numbers of customers.

And the same goes for Diana Wynne Jones, and for Patricia C. Wrede, and who knows how many other names.

Yet HarperCollins and some other publishers believe that library lending does not lead to a “commercially viable solution.” So all the royalties for all those books I bought myself and encouraged others to buy went—where, exactly?

And this is why we have to talk about entitlement again, because decisions like HarperCollins’ much-maligned digital checkout implies a certain amount of entitlement on the publisher’s behalf: We own these books and we will not let you look at them unless you meet our standards for proper readership. And if I do not meet those standards I will not get to read those books, and this will sting, because many of my favorite romance authors write for Avon (a HarperCollins imprint)—but it will not sting too long because like many others, I have a pile of other books at my elbow just itching to be read, and loved, and recommended. A publisher is no more entitled to my money than a reader is entitled to that publisher’s copyrighted content.

Surely I’m not the only one who feels this is a little too close to the pattern of Mutually Assured Destruction? Publishers attempt to increase sales in ways that make things more difficult for readers to read the book, which makes readers of that particular publisher’s books more scarce, which makes the publishers even more anxious to increase sales, and so on.

Two people, a white man and a white woman, each holding an open book smashed up against each other's face, so that they cannot see anything else including each other.
The first rule of Book Club is you don't talk about Book Club. Image via Rumors.

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On Libraries, Theft, and Entitlement

{Note: this post ran a little long, but I liked where it was going, so I have split it into two parts. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 will be up tomorrow.}

Recently, and coincidentally with National Library Week, Our Idol Linda Holmes at NPR’s Monkey See blog wrote an excellent piece on how, in all the fuss about ebook versus paper book pricing and sales, public libraries had slipped her mind. So she went in, got a library card, and took home a bunch of books and DVDs, which made her feel like she’d “committed a heist.”

It’s a telling phrase. Of course, she hadn’t stolen anything—she had merely borrowed a few things, and would return them within three weeks or face financial consequences, small though those might be. She was also financially liable for any damage done to the materials in her care—as I was in high school when a teething puppy ate one entire corner of my local library’s paperback copy of the Finnish national epic. If she lost any of those books or DVDs, she would have to pay to replace them.

An image of the spines of several hardback books with spine tags identifying them as library books.
An average weekly haul for me.

Linda Holmes also linked to this recent article by Lynn Neary on the new challenges libraries face in the digital age, which includes another implied connection between library borrowing and lost corporate revenue.

“I think the tension is, at the extreme, we could be making a book available to one national library on a simultaneous access model in perpetuity,” says [HarperCollins senior vice president Leslie] Hulse. “And what that would mean is everyone in the country could check out that book for free at any time, and that’s not a commercially viable solution.”

Which: no. No, “everyone in the country” could not check out that book. For one thing, we don’t really have “one national library” in the way this “extreme” example assumes. We have a patchwork of library networks at various levels, which are more or less interwoven with one another—public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, industry libraries, Interlibrary Loan, the WorldCat catalogue, my beloved JSTOR, the Library of Congress, and so on. It means that you can find a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird pretty much immediately, but that obscure book on the philosophical implications of editing in film will take you months to track down, if you can find it at all.

For another thing, since our hypothetical free-to-everyone book is an ebook, there’s an initial financial investment in hardware that not everyone will be privileged enough to make—a fancy way of saying that to read ebooks you have to have a computer, or a smartphone, or an ereader, or a tablet device. Maybe everyone in Leslie Hulce’s social circle has one or more of those things. But everyone in America certainly does not. To say that making an ebook infinitely lendable is like giving a free copy to every person in the country is a false equivalence.

Specifically, it equates librarians and library patrons to book pirates.

Which brings me to the question of entitlement.

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