Libraries, Ebooks and Common Sense

Do you care about the book biz?

Read ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s open letter to publishers.  Here’s the first bit:

It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is “no good here.” Surprisingly, after centuries of enthusiastically supporting publishers’ products, libraries find themselves in just that position with purchasing ebooks from three of the largest publishers in the world. Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin have been denying access to their ebooks for our nation’s 112,000 libraries and roughly 169 million public library users…”

Libraries? They’re for Toddlers and Grandma! Right?

 I have to admit it–I’m a book pro who, until recently, hasn’t paid a whole lot of my professional attention to libraries. I’ve written, represented, sold, edited,acquired, published, promoted, branded; I’ve lectured, ranted and lunched.  My bias–keep it real, keep it calm, keep standards high.

Libraries?  Well, they’re always there, right?  For folks like my mom?

I’m in the book business, which means sales, not freebies.

Thinking Again…

Guess what.  I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.

As someone usually firmly in the corner of the Big 6, I get that the financial and technological challenges of getting ebooks into libraries are very real, and rendered more sticky by the elephant in the room, Overdrive.  I want authors and publishers to make money.  I want to make money.  That means books have to be sold, not given away.

But…the single most powerful way to sell books remains personal recommendation.  And with the noise online and the existential challenges faced by physical bookstores, I’m starting to recognize the increasingly crucial role libraries can play in sustaining our business.

I’m still learning about all this.  I’m not at the table where these decisions are made; I believe the people considering the problem are well-intentioned and well-informed.

Personal Recommendations Sell Books

But my common sense and book sense tells me–come on, friends.  I’m reminded of the old days when publishers eagerly pursued book club sales for their books, even though they made far less money on books sold through discount clubs.  The point was the market for any given book is tiny, and “discoverability” (ugh) has ALWAYS been the biggest challenge for publishers.  The more people know about, and talk about a book, the more books will sell.

Especially if libraries embrace the “buy this now” button many innovators are putting on library websites.

If it’s true that reliable research (PEW) shows  “library users are more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library,” let’s find a way to make this work.


The AAP (Association of American Publishers) has responded to the ALA letter, noting  its invitation to Ms. Sullivan to speak  at an AAP event in a few days, and expressing its disappointment in what it deemed her too “simple” view of a complex issue.  The AAP response blames the problem partly on how tough it is for publishers to work together to solve the problem (thank you DOJ).   This is going to get interesting.



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