Saturday, September 15, 2012

With friends like these

In a recent press release, ALA President Maureen Sullivan talked about how librarians reached out in good faith to Big Six publisher Hachette, had cordial discussions, and left thinking that we'd laid a foundation for a solid and mutually beneficial relationship.

Then came the kicker: this week Hachette raised its prices for backlist titles (it still won't sell new titles to libraries) by up to 220%.

One can't help but think of the music industry. In an effort to hold onto corporate profits, the price of the packaging kept going up and up. Eventually, there was a consumer revolt, and disruptive new business models (as in the more consumer-friendly iTunes). Now think about those changes: today, there's no shortage of music. In fact, there's more than ever. But those music publishers who used to run things don't, so much. Most interestingly, musicians now often give their music away, finding it a far surer strategy to success. In the world of abundance, the problem is getting noticed.

It turns out that what mattered to consumers wasn't music publishers. We wanted music and musicians. And music survives.

The demand for digital books is growing, and libraries have to figure out how to meet it. By jacking up the prices of ebooks to unsustainable levels, some of today's legacy publishers are repeating the mistakes of the old music industry. Yet there's no shortage of writing -- in fact, libraries are more challenged than ever to track it.

We tried to make friends with Hachette. And as President Sullivan says, "with friends like these..."

Lesson: maybe what libraries and readers want isn't publishers. They want the creative work of authors. Maybe libraries need a smarter group of friends.

2 comments:

K.G. Schneider said...

I've been following the ebook tsuris as an observer/practitioner, but there's something about the #Hachettejob incident that has at least partially radicalized me on this topic. I appreciate Maureen Sullivan's swift leadership and I appreciate your thinking and writing on this as well. I feel myself moving from passive accommodation to active response -- whatever that might be.

Jamie said...

It's very good news for the profession that you are turning your attention to this issue, Karen. I think about all this a lot, and seem to find myself wanting to focus on three efforts:

1. Setting up our own econtent management systems, both to apply competitive pressure to distributors and publishers, AND to define a platform for local creation.

2. Developing strategies to identify, highlight, and encourage good writing from new channels (indies, self-publishing).

3. Reframe the public story. We have to stop playing a reactive game, and tell a new, more interesting, more engaging story, and not that of an aggrieved victim trapped in the past.

To that end, I think librarians really need to turn their public speaking and writing abilities to non-library audiences. And I can think of no one better for all of these tasks than you.