A Dystopian Twist for Library E-Books

The announcement last month that Macmillan’s Tor division (perhaps the world’s best-known science fiction publisher) has instituted a four-month embargo on new e-book titles for libraries is an unwelcome development. Tor officials say the change is designed to test whether library lending is affecting retail e-book sales. Librarians, however, see the move as an unwarranted restriction that will needlessly impact science fiction fans, some of our most avid readers.

Also of concern to librarians is that, after years of relative stability in the library e-book market, marked by improved communication and collaboration between American Library Association leaders and publishing executives, Tor’s move came as a total surprise.

The library community was unaware of any specific concerns prior to the change in terms. And news of the Tor embargo was delivered via a generic notice from our service providers, just days after the ALA Annual Conference, despite ALA’s hosting an “e-book summit” at the show.

In my June PW column, I casually identified a few steps the ALA and others were taking to remain engaged in the digital content conversation with publishers. But I realize now that the library community has been strolling along on these issues, when we should have been galloping.

Or, as my deputy director, Tracy Strobel, recently put it, we’ve been “baking brownies while the house is on fire.”

As the ALA’s appointed digital content fellow, I admit I was one of the library leaders asleep at the switch. Too often, librarians and ALA leaders can get lost in minutiae, debating issues and situations rather than acting to defend our profession or our services. But at the risk of sounding alarmist, I am done “baking brownies.” I am ready to take a fire hose to this problem.

Common Ground

Tor’s new embargo has been a topic of scrutiny in recent weeks among librarians. On the Public Library Association and Urban Libraries Council listservs, for example, librarians have been pushing for a range of responses, including a letter-writing campaign to Macmillan officials.

Personally, I’ve been synthesizing my thoughts to communicate with Tor Books chairman Tom Doherty. I have never met Mr. Doherty, but I bet we have something in common—we both care deeply about readers and writers.

Thousands of readers have discovered great Tor titles at my library, the Cuyahoga County Public Library, as well as in libraries nationwide—the groundbreaking Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor, for example, or the multiple Tor nominees for this year’s World Fantasy Awards.

But with this change, library e-book readers have, for some mysterious reason, lost the privilege of timely access to Tor titles.

Tor officials have thus far declined to say what data they are looking at, or why they think library lending might be negatively impacting retail e-book sales. But looking at our own data, I can see no evidence that library e-book lending could be adversely impacting Tor’s retail e-book sales. In fact, librarians know the opposite to be true: libraries offer an essential window of discovery for readers, and the access libraries offer to eager fantasy and science fiction readers doesn’t hurt Tor’s sales, it enhances them.

Mr. Doherty knows well the importance of discovery. He founded Tor Books in the 1980s precisely to expose readers to such important writers as Andre Norton and Poul Anderson. In 1985, Tor published Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, a book the ALA named one of its “100 Best Books for Teens,” and which was recognized with the Margaret A. Edwards Award, further increasing awareness of the book for countless readers.

The fact is that libraries are fantastic showrooms for Tor authors, in whatever format. So we’re puzzled why Tor would seek to “test” new terms that effectively relegate e-book readers to second-tier customer status?

Beyond the effect such restrictions will have on readers, I am also concerned that embargoes like Tor’s can also hurt the library brand. As public librarians, we feel great pressure to satisfy our customers. And when it comes to e-books, we have few ways to explain such restrictive publisher policies to readers.

In the age of Netflix, with so much digital content now readily available to consumers through a variety of platforms, our gloomy story of embargoes, exclusive author contracts, or exorbitant cost-per-unit pricing glazes over the eyes of library patrons in seconds. We sound like whiners, or worse, we look inept at providing reasonable service in the digital age.

For librarians, Tor’s sudden change of terms is a wake-up call. Yes, this is just one imprint of one publisher. But we cannot let Tor’s example become a larger trend. After years of work to secure basic access to e-books for library customers, we can’t let a patchwork of embargoes and other restrictions become our new digital reality.

Friends with Clout

Eight years ago, the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group was the right structure for ALA to address the issue of basic access to e-books and other digital content for libraries. Through a deliberate, detailed analysis, library and publishing leaders worked together to understand the business models and conditions needed for licensing e-books to libraries.

As the first co-chair of the DCWG, I know firsthand that one of the group’s major accomplishments was to establish open lines of communication between library leaders and publishing executives. Tor’s new terms, however, and the fact that Macmillan executives have not engaged with librarians about the change, suggest to me that libraries have once again been relegated to the kitchen, instead of joining decision makers in the boardroom.

Librarians of course remain ready and eager to talk with Macmillan officials. But it is clear that we must also expand our options.

It was encouraging to see the overwhelming, swift backlash to last month’s anti-library, Amazon-pandering Forbes op-ed by Panos Mourdoukoutas. If nothing else, that episode showed us that there is strong support out there for public libraries.

Now is the time to find more authors and journalists ready to explain how libraries are intrinsic to our quality of life. Now is the time to line up political advocates and other collaborators with clout to stand with libraries. And now is the time to fight back against the slow choking out of library access to digital content.

As the director of a large public library system, and in my current role as the ALA OITP fellow for digital content, I’ve engaged in many discussions about the state of digital content in libraries. But I recognize now that we must do more than talk. We must craft a strategy that will protect our patrons’ access to digital content. I, for one, do not wish to be surprised again.

PW libraries columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of the Public Library Association and of the American Library Association.

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