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The impact of Random House price increases

Musee Mechanique

Musee Mechanique

As many of you know, last week Random House raised its Overdrive ebook pricing a lot. Not 20-percent-a-lot. More like 300-percent-a-lot. Enough so that a cart of 9 ebooks I had in Overdrive, only some of which were Random House, suddenly bloated to nearly $500 before I deleted the RH titles… dropping the total to $78.

Here’s how this price increase impacts the reading ecology:

If librarians fill demand for RH titles, we have to buy fewer books from other publishers… not to mention fewer RH copies. If you’re responding to user demand for the most popular titles, that means more small publishers go on the chopping block. (Adios, Cassoulet!)

If you reduce the number of RH copies you purchase, your users now have much longer hold waits for these books. Like everything else in life these days, something that is a public good is rationed through an increasingly narrow funnel.

If librarians do as I did and stop buying RH ebook titles (because I’m not running a public library, and our popular-reading is important but not our top-tier priority), readers who want these books only have the paper option. You may say that’s perfectly fine, but stay with me while I detour to discuss in brief one of the less-insightful commentaries that emerged.

Over on TechCrunch, a writer opines that this price increase is a necessary evil. Devin writes, “These companies are faced, after all, with the prospect of selling one book and having it lent to a hundred people at once (though that is not the case here)” — my emphasis.

Right, it’s not the case here. The way Overdrive works, books are “checked out” just like paper books. These books can’t be renewed, and they can’t be loaned to others. One person, one book. We’re all aware it’s a horseless carriage of a workaround based on a known model, but all the players do get how it works.

Furthermore — and this is where the comment about paper comes in — for all the enormous, sparkling crocodile tears trickling down the face of Random House, as Bobbi Newman pointed out on Twitter, they had a boffo good year last year in re profits, and a lot of that was due to ebooks.

Why shouldn’t they have had a good year? They now have a supply channel that (to turn the publishing industry’s own NewSpeak back on itself) is almost frictionless. They don’t have to print, predict, ship, store inventory, ship it back when it’s not sold, or pulp it. I’m no tax lawyer, but I also suspect that publishers get a major revenue boost by no longer having taxable inventory sitting in physical warehouses.

And of course, publishers aren’t turning any of this revenue over to the people who make the books worth reading — the authors.

If you read the ensuing comments on the TechCrunch post, you’ll see that the author subscribes to the publishing-world-is-going-away model (or at least backpedals to that idea, in the face of indignant responses). In this model, if I’m reading him correctly, the publisher’s behavior is rational (if not appropriate) because they’re raking in money before Everything Changes and the current publishing model disappears — which I suppose we could label as thoughtful behavior for publishing execs whose children expect to go to college.

I won’t spend more time guessing what this writer believes, but what I believe in is nothing less than Ranganathan’s First Law: Books are for use. They don’t exist if people can’t read them–can’t read them because they can’t access them; can’t read them because they, or agencies acting on their behalf, such as libraries, can’t afford them. Books exist for us, for the life of the mind, to build the public intellectual commons.

Librarians aren’t stupid. We know that a lot will change in publishing and libraries, even in the next few years. Some of it will be traumatic and difficult, but some of it will be amazing and wonderful. And at core, the enduring values will abide. We as librarians believe in books, believe they belong in people’s hands, believe in the right to read, believe in authors, believe in readers, believe that reading changes lives, believe, believe, believe in what we do. And we also believe there will always be not just a need, but an innate urge for intelligently-composed, well-edited, carefully-curated intellectual content — some of which, for a very long time to come, if not forever, will be realized in booklike objects, shared within a reading ecology.

Where we go forward at this moment is important. I appreciate ALA talking to publishers. I understand the place we’re in. But so far, what’s been happening hasn’t had any effect; as I pointed out last week, it’s almost as if the publishers are thumbing our noses at us. If anything, despite our best efforts and strategies, we’re beginning to look  a little bit Neville Chamberlainish.

Exactly what’s next is unclear to me, but about a year ago a friend approached me with an idea: what about legislation? At the time, I wondered why or how that would work. Right now, I’m wondering why it wouldn’t.

I’ll close by repeating a comment I posted to my own blog last week, because it involves a working strategy:

Note that publishers have had their eyes on libraries for a long time. A pioneering librarian, Marvin Scilken, led the charge to expose imbalance in bookstore/library pricing decades ago, which resulted in an agreement on library pricing that no doubt has stuck in publishers’ craws ever since. (See his Wikipedia bio, cf. the section “1966 Senate Hearing on the Price Fixing of Library Books.”) Depending on who is in office, there would have to be some similar sympathy these days. Studying those hearings and their arguments might be useful. (Just like studying librarians of yore is valuable. Definitely at least one entire week in my Fantasy Library Class.)

How Marvin proceeded, and succeeded, might be a very useful research question to pursue in the ALA library and ALA archives — and could be a great class project for that class I don’t have time to teach. But one thing’s for sure: the good work Marvin did in 1966 is now being upended. Then again, maybe, in its own way, it can be repeated.




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