Where Do Libraries Fit In “A Viable Consumer Marketplace”?

“People are reading more than ever, and some think that’s a threat to publishers. I think it’s an opportunity.

After these past two days, I’m pretty optimistic that we’re all going to do the right thing. So what are YOU going to do to change?

Don’t disappoint me.”

10 years ago I was on the verge of helping launch [the original] Digital Book World—an annual conference and online community for the trade book publishing industry which was in the midst of legitimate disruption and exaggerated prophecies of inevitable doom, most notably emanating from our primary competitor, the Tools of Change conference, and the sycophantic tech-obsessed pundits they catered to. My CEO at the time left the 2009 edition of TOC annoyed, less by the overwhelmingly negative tone that permeated the program, much more by the lack of any potential solutions being offered.

The assumption was traditional publishing was finished because… *waves hands randomly* DISRUPTION!

Ebooks were the centerpiece of most of these negative proclamations, Apple (via the iPad) was going to be the industry’s savior, and piracy was the boogeyman du jour—while libraries were barely on the radar, famously excluded from DBW’s inaugural program.

Two notable presentations that year are perhaps even more relevant today as some publishers have decided libraries are an appropriate scapegoat for their declining retail sales despite the lack of any public data supporting that belief.

Both presentations were compelling and well-received, but the connections between them went mostly unrecognized as Singh was generally dismissed as being interesting but irrelevant to the Big 6 (“Publishers aren’t consumer brands!”), while Napack found a lot of support even as his most compelling point (“Create a viable consumer marketplace”) went mostly ignored as devices got more attention than platforms and customer experience.

Show Me the Data!

When it came to piracy, publishers believed it was being driven by people who would normally have paid for the books despite… wait for it… any data to support that belief.

“Some people will tell you that it’s the biggest problem facing publishing or that ebook piracy will kill publishing. None of those perspectives are informed by solid data.” Brian O’Leary

Data needs to drive the ebook piracy debate, Forbes, January 14, 2011

Sound familiar?

Fast forward a couple of years, piracy faded into the background, ebook sales were booming, and Amazon was arguably the only one paying attention to Napack’s call to “create a viable consumer marketplace” as Barnes & Noble’s Nook took priority over making BN.com competitive, Apple failed to take iBooks seriously for years, and half of the Big 6 collaborated on the predictably doomed-to-fail Bookish.

Outliers Aren’t Proof

The new boogeyman became discovery as the demand for ebooks opened the doors to an avalanche of content from traditional publishers, startups, and self-published authors, while physical shelf space was declining in the wake of Borders’ collapse and the steady demise of independent bookstores. “Discovery” wasn’t really a problem for readers as much as it was for publishers who had to deal with increased competition in a variety of categories they used to own, as well as… wait for it… an inability to engage readers directly because wholesalers, retailers, and traditional media outlets were their primary customers, while authors were the “brands” readers knew and loved.

In the midst of all of this, libraries were engaged in an ongoing struggle—first to acquire ebooks at all, then to acquire them at reasonable prices without overly restrictive terms—as they attempted to meet the demand of their local patrons, readers they engaged and nurtured on a regular basis to help connect them to books and authors they’d love. “Friction” became a common buzzword, from Katie Dunneback’s infamous “21 steps to download a library ebook” presentation in 2011, to the latest boogeyman, outlier library patrons signing up for multiple library cards so they can *checks notes* legally borrow ebooks the library paid a lot of money for so they can lend them to patrons on a one book/one user basis, per each publishers’ increasingly limited terms.

Are Library Patrons Not Consumers, Too?

As I argued in my recent op-ed for Publishers Weekly, while it’s quite possible some books’ retail sales are being affected by library lending as readers decide they’d rather wait to borrow the latest bestselling ebook from the library than license it immediately for $14.99 from Amazon, it’s also quite possible—perhaps even more likely—other factors are at play, like competition from other publishers and self-published authors’ ebooks, or the rarely correlated rise of audiobooks—a format dominated even more by Amazon than ebooks.

Another notable factor that publishers seem to have trouble acknowledging is that books—especially ebooks—don’t exist in a vacuum, competing only with other books published that month, but they fight for attention and discretionary income with every other immersive media format, too. Movies, TV, and gaming have all seen their own versions of digital disruption—not to mention other areas of publishing itself—so the idea that the one compelling villain to blame a decline in consumer ebook sales on is public libraries would be laughable if it wasn’t so short-sighted and suicidal.

Conversely, it’s also quite possible that libraries are helping fill the gap left by Borders’ collapse, B&N’s decline, and the lack of local booksellers in thousands of communities across the country—helping readers discover books, new and old, some of which they’ll put holds on and never get to read; some they’ll start to read and never finish, whether by choice or expiration; and some they’ll read and love and buy their own copy (probably from Amazon, unfortunately) because they want to own it or share it with others.

In the midst of a variety of external disruptors that have made book publishing at scale more challenging than ever, antagonizing the one partner whose core mission is effectively expanding and nurturing the audiences for your products, FOR FREE, is a bad strategy.

The Future of Publishing is Bright from Guy Gonzalez on Vimeo.

In my closing comments at the first Digital Book World, I declared: “People are reading more than ever, and some think that’s a threat to publishers. I think it’s an opportunity.”

Any publisher who can’t recognize the opportunity libraries have to play a role in maintaining a viable consumer marketplace is effectively inviting a future where Amazon and piracy are the primary channels for their books. There’s no version of that story with a happy ending for readers nor authors, never mind publishers themselves.

IMAGE: Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

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