ALA Annual 2011: Ebooks: New Strategy Required, Now

From left to right, Bocher, Harris, Brantley, LaRue, and Kahle

A sign of a good panel in New Orleans is one that snaps you out of heat exhaustion and a sugar coma, if only for 20 minutes. Saturday afternoon at ALA, I took in The Future Is Now!: Ebooks and Their Increasing Impact on Library Services, one of a handful of sessions at this year’s annual conference on a highly charged issue facing both librarians and book publishers.

Four panelists spoke in succession: Bob Bocher, Library Technology Consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Division for Libraries, Technology and Community Learning; Jamie LaRue, director of Douglas County (CO) Libraries; Chris Harris, coordinator of School Library Systems, Genesee Valley BOCES; Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive; and Peter Brantley, director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive.

Their messages represent what I’ve come to view as archetypes in the debate; in other words, we’ve heard it all before in other forums, but the reiterations are important because‚ as the standing-room and sitting-on-the-floor-under-the-projection-screen turnout indicated‚ librarians are still hungry for information on how to launch and build the best ebook collections possible.

If Bocher’s presentation about the Wisconsin State Library represented the moderate voice of consortial solidarity expanded to a national scale, with special concerns for interlibrary loan, LaRue’s was akin to a crude Big Six fuck you, if you’ll pardon my Dirty South‚ inflected tongue. As a buildup to his ridiculous and potentially damaging declaration‚ The bullet has gone through the brain of commercial publishing; we’re just waiting for the body to fall‚ he cited his personal experience as an author. For every sale of his 2007 book, The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he said he receives $4. Had he been working outside of the traditional system today, he argued that he could have doubled his share. Not an unreasonable statement from what I’ve read about Mark Coker’s Smashwords, of which LaRue is clearly a fan.

What smacked of foolhardiness, however, was his theory that because, in his words, commercial publishing accounts for less than 11 percent of American output (someone please qualify this statistic; it fried my brains like beignets at Cafe du Monde), the heavyweights as we’ve known them are kaput, finished. From where I was sitting on the floor, LaRue sounded as if he were confusing self-publishing’s titanic increases in volume with quality. But as any book review editor would tell you, quantity does not equal viable content. This was true before the self-publishing explosion, when the Big Six took up 98 percent of our submission shelf space, and it remains a fact as self-publishing gains some well-deserved respect.

Just so we’re clear: I am grateful authors have options like Amazon, Cursor/Red Lemonade, and It meant a talented writer/artist like Rami Efal was able to bring to light his Ignatz Award nominee Never Forgive, Never Forget (republished recently with new artwork as The Lantern and the Wave ). Discovering fringe voices, to borrow LaRue’s term, is a common goal of LJ Book Review editors and many public librarians because these voices can fill informational niches that become bigger markets (e.g., autistic spectrum disorders and nonfiction graphic novel narratives). We aspire to inform people about books they don’t know they’ll want or need. At the same time, however, we must ensure that we’re showcasing the no-brainer buys because they need to be ordered as quickly as possible to ensure customer satisfaction, and it must be noted, to justify taxpayer dollars.

In a word, it’s a matter of artful balance for us editors, though librarians, as I’ve learned especially in the last year, differ wildly in their takes on what should make up the guts and heart of their collections (see my BEA Survival Diaries for a look at how the Cuyahoga County Public Library treats midlist).

As I tweeted to librarian Jessica Smith, a passionate advocate for small presses who is repulsed by the public library as Blockbuster, I am not pro any one size of publishing enterprise; I am against extreme solutions to a complicated problem that requires aggressiveness balanced with diplomacy. Cutting out Random, Macmillan, HarperCollins, etc., in print, electronic, or both would equal a big collection development fail and become grounds for less funding.

Certainly, I support LaRue’s suggestions that we should explore the concept of library as content managers to cut out DRM costs and take more chances on patron-driven acquisition (another ALA theme) and tinkering with metadata. I even second his belief that this is the most exciting time in the history of [the library] profession; an era in which librarians, still under-recognized for their efforts in connecting readers with books, can point to more materials than they could have ever imagined. But I don’t see how the profession can earn more clout without the content providers who have long been their partners in making access to information possible. ALA needs to take a strong but constructive stance on ebooks once and for all, and engage, engage, engage‚ publishers, the general public, and their own constituency.

Not much has changed between publishers and librarians across the decades, one could argue. In 2011, they remain, at worst, two inflexible bureaucracies linked but at odds. But here’s some good news: they need each other more than ever as authors multiply and readers scatter, so it seems, far beyond marketing reach.

[I wrote a follow-up post about the OITP ebook Task Force’s recent meeting with HarperCollins executives called “Louisiana Deep-Fried Angst.”‚ HM]

See our ALA Conferences site for complete event coverage from the editors of Library Journal andSchool Library Journal.

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.


  1. Thank you for this. There seems to be a building hysteria about the sure death of the “Big 6.” I don’t see it. Yes, I see indie publishing as a growing segment. And some of it deserves accolades. However, the vast majority still goes unvetted, and too many authors rush to self-pub books that are not yet ready for the marketplace. Story is one thing. Well-written story is another.

    Yes, there are traditionally published books that aren’t fabulous. But they have been vetted. Most go through several rounds of revision, all in order to create the best possible books. The Big 6 are gatekeepers of a sort, and to think they are on a fast track to death is probably wishful thinking on the part of those who may feel snubbed by them.

    Librarians looking for the best possible books, in whatever format, should start with Big 6 books. Then, well-reviewed indie pubbed books. Then, in their “spare time,” they can wade through the tens of thousands of unvetted self-pubbed e-books out there.

  2. Heather McCormack says:

    Ellen, I think you’ve made some really relevant points. As you saw, I excerpted your comments in my Twitterstream, and some key book-buying librarians agreed. The debate is long from over, however. On Tuesday, I am hoping to post a guest column by a young librarian who would like to see more of an emphasis on small presses in libraries. Fascinating.


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