>”Attention! Attention! The revolution has been made aware of a reactionary incursion into the public library.”
The public library — the place where so many readers gained their first taste of the books they now spend money on. The public library — an institution, which, for all its flaws in places, remains one of the keystones to literary access for anyone — including those from a disadvantaged background, and those of us with book-habits too big for our incomes.
The public library — a pet hate they dared not name — of Big Publishing because, if they paid anything to anyone (besides the initial cover price) it was to those irrelevancies, authors, via PLR (in the UK, Australia, Canada and another 25 countries, not including the US). On the other hand everyone was supposed to support libraries, and paying authors is the publishers’ rationalisation for the cover price (yes authors get… well 6% for newbies. But really we publishers exist merely so we can act as a conduit to them. We make a small nett profit (which, like retail, we compare to the authors gross when questioned). And we do such valuable things for our large gross. Buy paper. Pay for printing. Arrange shipping and distribution. Do the accounting… sometimes editing and proofreading also happen! We keep you readers from being drowned dross, because we know what you really ought to want to read. Authors are lucky to have us and we nurture and look after them out of a love for literature, and pure, well, mostly pure, altruism.).
And then along came the e-book. And many of the stated reasons for the cover price being what it is… evaporated. The monopoly on retail access — at least for the electronic bookshelf — disappeared. Many authors and wannabe authors saw that the gatekeepers — who also kept the bulk of the income — were being disintermediated. Not many private tears were shed for the behemoths who said the e-book price really had to be almost the same as hardcovers to make ends meet and support their noble efforts (including paying for the office in NY and the advances for the various agenda driven publishers pets) although the beast is not dead, (and won’t IMO die, and will remain in new forms) so they got some sympathy in the public eye.
But there is more than one way to skin a cat. And while I expect publicity, money-clout, big-business dirty deals and possibly getting government legislation to get used to keep control of retail display access – or at least most of it, this one I did not expect. It amounts, de facto, if not de jure, to false advertising — like calling your ten fellow power seizing coup d’etat plotters and wannabe dictators “The Peoples Democratic Liberation Army” and the snatching of the moral high ground by means of terminology.
Enter left, with fanfare, “Public Library Online ” — which is neither a library in the normal understanding of the word, nor does it fulfil the intent behind the word ‘public’ as I see it – it’s a private company with access by subscription only. In fairness, it is ‘online’. One out of three…
Set up by Bloomsbury, but now allowing access to other publishers (one imagines, for a fee/royalty payment) – not the hoi polloi, however, it is a ‘service’ offered to those overextended, underfunded and incredibly valuable national treasures, REAL libraries, of – for a fee – online access to a virtual ‘shelf’ of e-books (which can only be read online).
For the library that signs up, well, the admin is dealt with, there is no hassle, with a library card number your library members can read (so long as they’re online) any of the books on that ‘shelf’. There are new shelves offered every year (or more often?) all for a ‘minimal fee’ and there is no need to pay the author a PLR (another bit of admin done away with) as they get 40 Pounds for every participating author, for every 1/4 million people that library authority serves. Why, as this article points out authors who the publishers decided to include would earn 1000 pounds per book per shelf a year – the equivalent of selling (according to them) 2000 paperbacks. And many library readers then go on to buy the book… It’s a win-win-win… isn’t it?
Hmm. I doubt it. I think it’s more like asking the fox to guard your hen-roost. And opening the cage so the fox can do the job better!
For starters 1) while libraries will apparently be able to choose their shelf — they will not be able to choose their books. So we hand choice to the publishers… who have done such a good job of broadening reading and getting more people to buy books haven’t they?
2)PLR generally pays according to the number of times your book is taken out. It is, at the moment, possible to donate your author copies to libraries (I do), and thus at least get them into the system, letting people try them, and to get some feedback not related to retail access. It won’t be under this system.
3)PLR pays the author. Not the publisher… to hand on a smidgen (no doubt adjustable at the publisher will), and, if you want to be on a ‘shelf’ you’d better suck it up, and take whatever terms you are offered. In other words – less books for more money in PLR expenditure terms.
4) We return to the gatekeeper model – where the publisher decides exactly who will crack the nod. And Bloomsbury decides which publishers will crack the nod. So from bad we go to twice as bad, as far as allowing the public to choose what they would like to read. So much for ‘Public’.
5) Being on a ‘shelf’ with a popular best-seller will mean a great deal to an author, especially a new one, or midlister. It’s almost zero cost to the publisher, but can be used as a powerful inducement/threat to keep writers in line. ‘You self-publish on Kindle, you’ll never be on our bookshelf again.’
6) A book once paid for, is paid for. It remains there even if your library has no money spare for new books. Not so with this system. You’ve _leased_ the books for a year. If you have no money: you have no books. If you have less money… you’ll have less books. Not exactly a gift to the public in straitened times.
7) In normal parlance – and in the new e-book retail – a book remains on the shelf many more years – far longer than brick-and-mortar retail access. This allows the book to gradually build a following by word of mouth, removing the ability of publishers to control sales by publicity and distribution. Not with this system. You have a year. When you have no large publicity spend, a year is not enough. When you do, it’s plenty.
8) This is nice and easy, we do it all for you…. ergo this a proprietary system we control. You, Joe Author, cannot merely donate your work to it, and once your library is dependent on it, we can do whatever we like to the costs etc.
9) Counting the book numbers on a ‘shelf’ – if I have this right – 9-10 – means authors get 35-40% of the income – and the library is spending more or less 100 pounds per book. That’s NOT a bargain. 60-65% of that is being absorbed by the publisher, who has no returns, no paper costs, trivial distribution and storage costs, and no retail cost, and thus are taking this share (way above what they had for ordinary books) for admin and proof-reading and editing. -talk about gouging ‘the public’ – getting your money whether you like the author or book or not by means of your taxes.
10) The effect of this on the value and role of librarians does not seem to be considered. I’m all for libraries doing away with/making simple the stupid donkey work of people who should be there because they know and love books — replacing books in alphabetical order, and clocking books in and out. But this removes the librarian one step further from the ESSENTIAL functions of good librarianship — choosing the right books (not ‘shelves’) for their readers interest, and directing specific readers to those books. Next thing we know it’ll imitate the ‘brilliant’ success of taking away local control over these functions in book shops. That worked SO well there, I am not surprised that publishers want to repeat it in Libraries.
I could go on… but I really do not see this as a good thing for readers or authors.
I love and support libraries. This I see as a very bad thing for them, and for readers, and for writers. Publishing has, with some exceptions (and help from Chain retail and education authorities), been in the driving seat for the decline of literate people reading (the absolute numbers of literate people has increased, the numbers of readers in this group has dropped dramatically – the market has increased a hundredfold, the number of books sold… 10 fold.). Are they the right people to hand the exclusive keys to the library system to?
I’m not sure how to counter it. The Baen Free Library is one possible model.
About the only good thing I can say about it is that it is only online – at this stage.
Anyway: your thoughts?
Am I entirely wrong? Are they saints being vilified by bad me?