ALA Annual 2011: Louisiana Deep-Fried Angst

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!

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

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


  1. Allan Hoving says:


    • Heather McCormack says:

      Buy and donate ebooks? Who’s doing either of those in your scenario?

  2. Kristi C. says:

    We have a long way to go before we can find sustainable models. Libraries are dependent (in most cases because of funds and skills) on third-party systems to provide the ebooks, so we buy the chains that bind us. We need to keep working on not only open dialogue with publishers and vendors that already exist, but also explore creating library-controlled platforms for digital materials.

    • Heather McCormack says:

      Kristi, yes, library-controlled platforms came up several times at ALA, and I imagine librarians in the trenches talk about them every day! That’s a lot of data and work to saddle already overworked pros and paralibrarians with. It’s logistically a nightmare, but I’m not saying it’s not possible.

  3. Elroy says:

    What an insightful article.
    On another note, could you please tell me where you found that fried okra? It looks delish! I’m sorry it made you ill.

    • Heather McCormack says:

      Ha! It was at a po’boy joint in the Warehouse District, five minutes from the convention center. I can’t recall the name. If you drop Peter Brantley a line he would remember. Thanks for reading.

  4. Allan Hoving says:

    @Heather: If my library doesn’t have a particular ebook, or if there’s a waiting list for limited copies, I’d like the option to “buy and read now, then donate it to your library.” Somebody has to pay, I’m happy to help, and I don’t need them cluttering up my Kindle. After I’m done reading, it could immediately go into the collection, or to the next patron on the list.

  5. Heather McCormack says:

    What a lovely sentiment, Allan. Let’s start a campaign. If you know of someone who has, and it’s working, I’d love to hear about it!

  6. Kristi C. says:

    @Allan & Heather: It would be ideal to have the ability to “donate” ebooks to libraries, as we have had many patrons suggest the same thing. I wonder if the barriers are at the platform vendor level or the publisher level? Any thoughts on LJ finding out?

    • Heather McCormack says:

      @Kristi, Allan, Deb: Well, that’s another bloody post in itself! That assumes that a person owns and can transfer the content to whomever she chooses. We’re moving into first sale territory here, methinks, and that’s highly charged stuff. I would think the answer ultimately lies in federal legislation and the extension of the first sale doctrine to downloadable content. I am no expert on this, understand. But that’s my hunch. You are not going to get far talking to OverDrive on this issue, as they also do business with publishers and protect their interests. Needless to say, it’s not in publishers’ interests to have “shared” ebooks around.

  7. Deb Czarnik says:

    Allan, Heather, Kristi — I have submitted the “Buy and Donate” model as an enhancement request to our major ebook vendor (OverDrive). If others requested this directly from their vendors, perhaps we could get somewhere.

    Our patrons donate their hardcover and paperback books when they are done with them, why not their eBooks?

  8. Melissa P. says:

    Thank you for your honest and refreshing take on one of the reasons I waited 20 years between ALA memberships. I tire of the “victim” status and the constant insistence of speaking in an echo chamber. As you saw,it makes us ill-prepared when we actually talk to people outside of that arena of nodding heads.

    As a Colorado librarian I have been trying to wrap my head around the apparent “all or nothing” plan that Jamie LaRue has proposed. As a former independent bookseller I am THRILLED that the many talented independent publishers and authors have an opportunity to publish in e-formats, however, I refuse to throw out the Big 6. The death knell of publishing has been ringing for decades and it is still here.

    What we need now is serious business minded discussions that create sustainable and valuable alternatives in the ebook industry for authors, publishers, and librarians alike. Let’s be intelligent and realize the difference between non-profit and for-profit missions to their clientele. We may not like it, but that is how it is. We need to suggest realistic alternatives that will give libraries the ability to use ebooks just as they do paper books. We don’t “own” the content of paper books, yet we are not limited in what we do with them once we purchase them. Why is it so different with ebooks? As in anything virtual, when people can’t touch it they freak out.

    I am also wary of libraries as publishers–what happens to our non-profit status?

    Okay, done ranting, but I do think a lot of it is perspective and when we as librarians talk to the publishers we need to show that there are different perspectives.

    • Heather McCormack says:

      @Melissa P, this is great stuff! Rant away. The issue of being able to own and transfer e-content is massive for libraries, and strangely, I’ve never heard it come up in any of the major conferences of the last two years. Not at ALA, midwinter, PLA, Tools of Change, or Digital Book World, for sure. This will be a bloody battle, on Capitol Hill, really. ALA needs to start triathlon training now. Endurance is the word, yo!

  9. Kristi C. says:

    @Heather: I guess we are in a round-robin with this argument. We already have exemption in regards to libraries on first sale doctrine, however argument continues on licensing vs. purchase of digital materials. I am certainly no expert either, but IMO this cannot be constrained to libraries. Does the average consumer realize that the ebook they bought is essentially not theirs? They do not own the content they have bought for their ereader? I can deal with licensing, I can deal with ownership, but we cannot keep trading rules back and forth for one group’s benefit, whichever group that may be.

  10. Kate Corbett says:

    I had the misfortune to read a very long list of hateful, mean-spirited and dead-end posts directed at HarperCollins. It appears that some librarians don’t understand the concept of the publishing *business*. Please continue to develop possible business platforms and exchange these ideas with the “evil capitalists.” I’m sure you are on the right track.

  11. Allan Hoving says:

    let’s not make a federal case out of this. :-) i’m also happy to buy the ebook “for” the library. i don’t have to own it, i just need to be able to read it now. surely, this can be worked out. i make a micro-donation to the library, the library instantly buys it, and i then get access to the library’s copy (hey, you can even meter the check-outs; once we hit the limit, the whole process can start over). i’m here, i want to read Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge on my Kindle, and I’m liberal with my e-wallet. make it easy…

    • Heather McCormack says:

      @Allan, I’d rather, but I’m afraid someone will have to at some point. As I understand it, ebook consumers do not own the content they have purchased, crazy as that may sound. The publisher has licensed it to you, therefore you cannot donate or resell it as you would with print. @Kristi pulled this from Amazon: “Unless otherwise specified, Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.”

  12. ivan says:

    @ok, if @i don’t @own the @digital @content, then let @me @transfer the @license to the @library.

    another solution would be to give my kindle to my library, and with the kindle goes all my licensed content.

    or, let’s start KNAPSTER… a peer-to-peer KINDLE sharing network.


  1. […] ALA Annual 2011: Louisiana Deep-Fried Angst – Heather McCormack’s thoughts on the HarperCollins discussion […]

  2. […] on that task force meeting, see the commentary by Heather McCormack in Library Journal, ALA Annual 2011: Louisiana Deep-Fried Angst. She offers some suggested action items for ALA leadership to move the conversation […]

  3. […] task force meeting, see the commentary by Heather McCormack in Library Journal, “ALA Annual 2011: Louisiana Deep-Fried Angst.” she offers some suggested action items […]