Terms of Service on Our Terms

What a difference a day makes, eh?

I talked a bit yesterday about the response to HarperCollins’ new ebook policy, and I’m pleased to see just how many others are speaking out. There are even a few non-library inroads, including Galleycat, BoingBoing, and ReadWriteWeb.

But it’s the Librarian in Black that strikes a nerve with her post, Library eBook Revolution, Begin. Sarah’s posts spells out many of the ways concerned librarians, authors, and readers can take action right now.

As the #hcod uproar has shown, librarians across the country are spoiling for a fight. But what’s the best approach? I’ve seen calls for angry confrontations at ALA, removing offending titles from library shelves, and outright boycotts.

But I would argue that the picket line isn’t the place for this battle. Rather, I think we need to take this struggle to the boardroom. Like it or not, publishers have a vested business interest in keeping libraries happy. If they want us to continue purchasing and promoting their titles, we need to hear about new terms – before they’re set into stone.

Because 26 checkouts isn’t the only issue that needs addressing. Several other people have addressed the other change to Overdrive’s policies here, but it merits re-quoting:

Another area of publisher concern that OverDrive is responding to is the size and makeup of large consortia and shared collections. Publishers seek to ensure that sufficient copies of their content are being licensed to service demand of the library’s service area, while at the same time balance the interests of publisher’s retail partners who are focused on unit sales. Publishers are reviewing benchmarks figures from library sales of print books and CDs for audiobooks and do not want these unit sales and revenue to be dramatically reduced by the license of digital books to libraries.

My library is part of a consortium, so this graf hits me where I live. This is another case where the effort to save a buck in the short term is going to have terrible long-term consequences for our eBook collections. Group buying power enables library consortia to spend more money pursuing less well-known titles. This encourages broader discovery of new books, and provides a greater likelihood that patrons won’t walk away empty-Nook’d when they find the latest James Patterson is checked out. Break up the consortium, and each library can only spend money on bestsellers. Bye-bye, long tail. What really gets my goat here is that these changes come directly from the vendor, without a thought about how this will affect activity on the other side of the partnership.

To correct this, we need to explain why taking library priorities into account make better economic sense than the current “we say jump” model. It’s a conversation we should have been having with all of our vendors. If we have to terminate our existing vendor-customer partnership to do so, so be it.

I’ve spent a good part of the last year working on a project with the public elementary and middle school districts in my community. Our primary goal is to ensure that every student has a public library card. But we’re also working to provide greater access to our electronic resources. Our hope is to create strong digital literacy skills from an early age, with a goal of improved research abilities and net ethics in the long term. We’ve been working with faculty, parents and students alike, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Our pilot partnership with one school district is well entrenched at this point, and we’re enthusiastically moving forward with the remaining local schools.

But there was a snag with our of our database providers, whose terms of service stated:

If remote access is included it shall not be permitted from any public or private third-party educational facility or library institution other than those of the Licensee.

This is an understandable term on its surface. Libraries and schools make up this vendor’s bread and butter, so they need to make sure schools don’t say “why are we paying for this product, if we can just get it in the library,” and pulling the plug.

But here’s the thing: public school libraries in my community don’t even have a book budget. They don’t currently subscribe to this vendor, and they’re certainly not going to subscribe any time before their current financial situation gets better. (Raise your hand if you see that happening any time soon. Anyone? Anyone?)

On top of that, we designed a system that required every student to have a library card in order to access the database. If nothing else, it would help to reinforce the value of the library card as a gateway to valuable information. We took every effort to play by their rules. We even offered to pay a premium for schools to allow students to access what their taxes have already paid for.

The vendor’s response: Sure, you can pay a premium. Just pay the per-site fee we’d normally charge the schools. With over a dozen sites to deal with, this charge would have been more than ten times what were currently paying. Failing to bring the vendor to our point of view, we cancelled our subscriptions outright. What made business-sense to them didn’t make service-sense to us, so we walked away.

In this case, we were lucky. Plenty of other products exist to take the place of the inflexible vendor’s offerings. At this point, there isn’t really a viable replacement for Overdrive’s eBook selection. Maybe this an opportunity for someone else to step in.

One thing should stay clear: the vendors behind this digital content have a right to make money. They do so by selling access to libraries. But we’re not the endpoint for that access – our patrons are. If the vendor imposes restrictions that negatively affects that access, libraries need to advocate on behalf of their users. But in order to do that, we’re gonna need a better seat at the table. To get that place, we’re gonna need a revolution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1909930 Jenny Benevento

    I’m still digesting all of this Toby, but thanks! As less a librarian and more a consumer in this realm, I’ve always wondered why companies that make non-Kindle e-readers have never marketed their devices as library compatible. When I talk to people about how much I love my e-reader, I always talk about how I’ve never bought a book for it. People are SHOCKED. Then they bring up that they too might buy a Kindle. And then I have to explain they won’t be checking out library books as easily/legally on that device.

    It seems like an amazing money making angle for companies to say look, you buy this device, you get free bestsellers!

    Obviously the 26 checkouts is based on 2 wk. intervals. Not all ebook vendors or libraries use 2 week intervals. Some do 1 wk, some 3. With 1 wk of lending, I’ve had to check a book out more than once. Theoretically, then, a purchase of a book could last only 6 mos with half as many people reading it!

  • Don Linn

    As much as it pains me to say it, most large publishers (despite the happy talk and lip service) really don’t care that much about keeping libraries happy. I think asking for a seat at the table is both appropriate and rational (and some of the more feel good suggestions like a “Wall of Shame” are not). But I would not hold my breath waiting for major publishers to spend a lot of time worrying about libraries’ needs. It’s not in their DNA any more than accessibility for special needs readers is.

  • gershbec

    Hear what you’re saying re: long tail. But currently the long tail when it comes to Overdrive involves lots of crappy romances that we are stuck with as part of our consortial package. Hell, try finding anything that is not YA or crap fiction that doesn’t require a hold. I’d welcome a chance to offer an ebook collection that only offers lots of copies of what our readers want.

    The argument with Google Books is that it will help those authors who have out of print genre books, and that may end up being the case. I’d also argue that there is a great opportunity here for publishers to move some of that long tail by making it available here (and it is imperative for Overdrive, as the one library solution around to convince publishers that it is worth their while and/or to find a way for them to make money off of what gathers dust on bookstore shelves). But realistically, for Overdrive to succeed we need lots and lots of what our readers are looking to read. I’d argue that we’d have a better chance to serve our patrons by buying up lots of individual ebook “copies” of bestsellers and offering them instead of the garbage that gets packaged into Overdrive.

  • Anonymous

    Jenny –

    Thanks for chiming in. There are steps in this direction, on both small and large scales. We’ve worked with our local Barnes & Nobles and Best Buys to offer training and resources about library compatibility. Overdrive is also unveiling a “Library Certified” program that hardware manufacturers can use to advertise the extra benefit. They’re small steps, to be sure, but it’s at least something to raise visibility.

    But you’re right. In a world where “Kindle” is quickly becoming the “Kleenex” or “Band-aid” of eBooks, more needs to be done to teach the public that yes, there is a difference.

  • Anonymous

    As much as it pains me to say it, Don, I’m fairly certain you’re right. But rather than holding our collective breath, it’s our responsibility to demonstrate the economic value of partnering with libraries rather than taking an antagonistic stance. Hard to say if anyone in the executive suite is listening right now, but the least I can do right now is try.

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  • http://onlineeconomicsclasses.com/ Al Broadman

    I have boycotted the company and never plan to read anything from them again.

    the good thing is with all the free ebooks out on the net, I will not miss HarperCollins one single bit

    HarperCollins, I never knew you!

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