Fried okra and Coca-Cola made me ill at ALA Annual in New Orleans last week, and no amount of extra-strength TUMS or meditation in the Press Room was enough to settle my roiling stomach. Come to think of it, that heaping of organizational-politics-as-usual didn’t help either. Rewind to last Sunday; another Nawlins micro-downpour has just cleaned the streets, and eight or nine members of the OITP (Office of Information Technology) ebook Task Force begin a business meeting attended by senior-level HarperCollins staff who had, to their credit, requested an audience. The aim was to begin talks about charged issues like business models (read: the 26 loan cap); the outcome disappointed me deeply, and not for the reasons you may think.
Josh Marwell, president of sales at HarperCollins, clearly stated his company’s business objectives and demonstrated a willingness to discuss alternative systems, a trait desperately lacking in his Big Six counterparts, I must stress. For his interest and time, Marwell and his team‚ he was accompanied by Virginia Stanley, HC director of library marketing, and Adam Silverman, HC senior business manager‚ deserved considered, creative, hard-headed ideas from the task force that take into account the interests of both libraries and publishers.
Aside from OITP member Peter Brantley’s repeated calls for possible ownership versus licensing (read his take on the meeting), all I heard was self-righteousness, desperation, and na√Øveté between pointless reiterations of the already established problems posed by the cap. While I didn’t expect miracle solutions to spring from the top of people’s heads, I did want a marked sign that ALA was taking the initiative for once in this debate, not waiting for publishers to give them what they want, whatever that is (part of the problem is zero consensus).
All of this, you see, a day after attending the so-bad-it-was-good panel The Future Is Now!: Ebooks and Their Increasing Impact on Library Services‚ which did little to further the discussion aside from encourage publishers’ paranoia about librarians as cracked-out Robin Hoods (see my companion post, “Ebooks: New Strategy Required, Now”) and further confuse ALA members about what they should be doing to advocate for fairer access. Cut to my stomach gurgling in stereo. Now add a slow-burning headache and existential angst, and you’ve got a good sense of how I felt on Sunday evening as the meeting went from bad to worse, confirming my long-held belief that ALA is clueless to the point of invisible on ebooks in the eyes of publishers, their constituents, and the general reading public.
Many will argue that my criticisms are unfair; that librarians, as the helpless victims of money-grubbing publishers, have every right to wield their inherent nobleness as their main defense. But this is a lame strategy considering that the person sitting on the other side of the bargaining table has just told you he’s here to make money. To my relief, many whip-smart librarians have grasped this reality and have applied the exactly right form of logic, e.g., if you have the ways and means, offer a publisher more filthy lucre‚ to a point. At an ebook panel at this year’s BookExpo America, Robin Nesbitt, technical services director of Columbus Metropolitan Library, declared her willingness to pay more for increased access if the plan were right.
I also wonder if what remains an unquantified library asset‚ connecting books with readers‚ could serve as a mondo bargaining chip. In my biggest dream pilot program, publishers sell rather than license backlist ebooks to library consortium on the condition that the affiliated libraries conduct seasonal reader’s advisory programming for those backlist titles. In other words, readers who love Classic X are pointed to Frontlist Contenders Y and Z, which would incur a charge if checked out. Patrons are encouraged to review the backlist and frontlist titles for the library catalog, which would link to Amazon, a local indie partaking in the Google eBookstore program, or some equivalent book vendor, thus testing the theory of patrons as consumers (follow LJ‘s Patron Profiles research series for more on this) and allowing libraries the opportunity to collect monetizable data.
I know, I know: You think I’m encouraging a bias toward the big houses, but I would argue I’m simply playing into the demands of the public library audience (academic libraries are another issue altogether). As we haven’t been able to begin trade ebook collection development, giving the majority what it wants strikes me as the smartest plan. Get high approval ratings, secure taxpayer dollars, and then move on to gleaning the small press and self-published diamonds‚ by mining those patron reviews of frontlist and backlist works, which if they’re like any other book reviews, will bemoan a lack of niche materials on, oh, I don’t know, lesbian vampire erotica.
As my acute indigestion clears up, two conclusions for the OITP to chew on for its next meeting. The first: a fair, sustainable ebook model will call for an unprecedented amount of communication and experimentation between librarians and publishers who, for all of their clashing values, share the goal of disseminating information‚ reason enough to suffer the strife. Two: far more than FAQs, donuts, coffee, or antacids, the conversations will require aggressive but poised ALA leadership that will incorporate the input of in-the-trenches librarians and the very publishers that are too often demonized for doing their jobs.
Some suggested action items so I don’t come off like a negative creep (I actually care about ALA’s stake more than I can say):
- Renew an alliance with the Association of American Publishers (AAP).
- Foster relationships with the passionate library marketing directors of the AAP Trade Libraries Committee, who can connect you with corner offices.
- Talk to the Cindy Orrs, Alene Moronis, Robin Nesbitts, and Michael Santangelos of the profession because they don’t let adverse business models get in the way of customer service.
- Avoid fried okra.
- Write your own story and sell it to the media.
- Recruit next year’s Emerging Leaders to market that story.
Funk power over and out!