Monday, March 7, 2011

Who's a Bully? A reply to Martin Taylor and more on #hcod

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the HarperCollins affair has lead to a wider discussion about e-books in libraries, access versus ownership, and the role that DRM plays in our lives. After all, HarperCollins decision wasn’t made in a vacuum; they have interests to protect and those interests aren’t relevant to just HarperCollins, but to all publishers, especially the Big Six, and to authors as well, who deserve to be compensated for their work.

Librarians, for their part, have advocated resistance (I assume that there’s also a silent majority or plurality out there that’s going to carry on as they did before HarperCollins decision), ranging from a boycott of DRM, a boycott of all of HarperCollins, a boycott of just HarperCollins e-books, to lobbying. But we haven’t heard much from HarperCollins or their supporters… until now.

Martin Taylor is the managing director of Addenda Publishing in New Zealand and has long had an interest in digital publishing. He founded the Digital Publishing Forum and claims both authors and publishers as shareholders and works with the New Zealand copyright regime.

No surprise, then, that Mr. Taylor writes

In spite of the heat HarperCollins can expect to receive from its library customers, I hope they stand their ground. Librarians need to shift their thinking as digitisation transforms the reading landscape. They are doing authors, publishers and ultimately themselves and their patrons no favours by this stance.

The fact is that rightsholders do have serious concerns and librarians have not managed to address them… In the face of rightsholders’ concerns, librarians must listen not bully, and they should be willing to experiment with new models that will ensure libraries and other channels can co-exist in the emerging, all-pervasive digital world. No-one has all the answers yet but we won’t solve this issue by denying the existence of the problem and closing off avenues for fresh thinking.

There are some good points made in his article, and I think that librarians need to hear alternative perspectives, away from the #hcod echo chamber, but to this reader two words jump out, “rightsholders” and “bully.” Let’s take these in turn.

Taylor is, I think, absolutely correct about the difference between print and electronic books, and what this difference means for the relationship between libraries and publishers, “the potential ease with which borrowers can get a free ebook is a quantum shift, not merely an incremental change” (italics in original). He also points out that it is print copies of books that sell when libraries circulate e-books, and publishers would like library patrons to buy e-books as well as print. Fair enough. But the distribution model for e-books and e-book publishers compared to print is also a quantum shift, one that is not addressed here. I may as well start with the inflammatory statement and proceed from there, so here goes: who needs publishers anymore?

We’ve seen traditional distribution channels circumvented in music publishing and distribution for some time now. Radiohead, a popular and critical success, has managed to make millions by selling mp3/wav file downloads directly to consumers, and then partnering with publishers to sell traditional materials. Hundreds of other bands don’t get rich using this model, but they make a living, and maybe even a career out of it, which in the end is their goal. I like to think that most authors don’t dream of millions of dollars, but of millions of people discussing their works and their ideas therein. Maybe that’s overly romantic of me, and so be it, but then again, I know a lot of writers, and I don’t think any of them would trade places with a cash-obsessed hack (no need to name names, insert your tastes here). Authors can sell e-books via Amazon’s Kindle store, something less than a publisher, something more than the Radiohead model. It’s already happening. And it's not entirely a good thing. Look at Borders.

Taylor's use of “rightsholders” is telling. Publishers create nothing; they share the rights with authors because of their ability to distribute and promote, and increasingly, authors can self-publish (many have self-promoted for eons). Taken in this context #hcod seems like the last gasp of a dying industry, doesn’t it? Publishers last comparative advantage is separating the signals from the noise since there are so many potential self-published and -distributed creators. Being published by a firm is a stamp of approval to the rest of the world. But outside of that (admittedly powerful) normative and intersubjective milieu, HarperCollins and other publishers will be left behind.

Now, this is the extreme, not very nuanced position. But tell me I’m wrong. Use the comments below, or use an excerpt on your blog and let’s have a conversation on the middle ground.

As for bullying, we didn’t land on #hcod, Mr. Taylor. #hcod landed on us. Librarians are not the bullies here. Bullies pick on the weak, using positions of strength to force their terms on others. HarperCollins capricious and arbitrary decision to limit check outs of e-books to 26 times was unilaterally imposed on libraries, without consultation or negotiation. Who’s the bully here?

In the end, however, I think the author and I agree on how this is going to end for many public library systems, at least in the short-term: some of the costs of e-books are going to be passed along to patrons. Librarians don’t like charging for services, but given the budget cuts, it’s going to happen. Right now most e-reader owners are affluent and can afford these costs. As e-readers' costs approach $0, though (and that’s going to happen soon), more people at all income levels will have them, at which point lending e-books for a fee may be a only temporary fix.

Maybe by the time we revisit this conversation, there won't be a Big Six, and that's what HarperCollins decision is all about.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. No conflict of interest for Mr. Taylor, right? ;)

    Mr. Taylor also writes: “For an average 2-week lending term, libraries would get a full year of lending for about US$10-20, based on typical ebook prices—that’s about 40-80 cents a loan.”

    Libraries in Canada don’t get a deal anywhere near this. We pay *more* for an e-book than for the same print book. According to this NYT study, publishers are making 4x the profit on an ebook sold at the same price as print:

    Sorry, we are being gouged. Perhaps if publishers actually sold ebooks at one-half to one-third the price of print, I might be sympathetic to their plight, but right now it’s pure greed.

    We also don’t even own the ebook — we license it. What is that?!? Gimme a break.

    As you note, Radiohead figured it out.

    Neil Gaiman (HC-published author) figured it out:

    Steve Jobs figured it out. Apple passed 10 billion downloads a year ago:

    They also dumped DRM in 2009:

    Baen Free Library figured it out:

    So did Sony. They partnered with Freegal to offer libraries DRM-free downloads of the entire Sony Music catalog:

    How about this as a radical idea:

    Remove the DRM, lower the price and place a few links at the front & back of the ebook to allow patrons to purchase items from the publisher. Publishers will get more sales, more authors will make money and libraries will be able to expand their collections to serve our communities.

    There is absolutely no reason to ever artificially limit an ebook. As it stands, Harper Collins' draconian digital book-burning policies will force libraries to make a choice: buy the same titles over and over and over every few years and forego purchasing new titles or only buy new titles.

    Frankly, I don’t like either of those options. Our library has already made a decision — we’re not spending one cent of our million dollar book budget with HC.