05 March 2012

Publishers and the DPLA

On Friday I attended the event at Harvard about the Digital Public Library of America. I ended up asking the last question of the session, which was about publisher support—or lack of it—for the venture.

Earlier that week, the news broke that Random House was planning to charge libraries up to three times the consumer price for digital books. As the speakers had pointed out, only one of the six major US commercial publishers was offering libraries terms on ebooks close to what readers can pay. Meanwhile, there’s a whole ’nother set of issues over scientific, medical, and technical publishers and what they charge to research libraries for access to papers.

In reply, Prof. Richard Darnton pointed out that publishers have legitimate reasons to be worried about digital public libraries damaging their sales. Prof. John Palfrey said that some publishers were observing the DPLA work with interest. Still, it didn’t sound like such companies were ready to jump in, and that left me wondering how that limited the DPLA’s potential.

Mike Shatzkin discussed just that issue in an essay titled “Libraries and publishers don’t have symmetrical interest in a conversation”:

Because libraries are, at most 5% of a general trade publisher’s business and far less of the ebook business, and because the market is changing so rapidly and because every retailer except Amazon can be said to be struggling to carve out a sustainable position in the global ebook marketplace, there are many legitimate reasons for the biggest publishers to take a wait-and-see attitude about libraries and ebooks. . . .

Of course, libraries view this differently because the big books from the big publishers are a lot more than 5% of their patrons’ interest.
Libraries need the big books more than the big commercial publishers now need libraries. Plus, when government budgets are being slashed and people are questioning the value of public services, libraries don’t have the same economic leverage they’ve had at other times in publishing history.

None of that came as a surprise to me, of course. In fact, I was sitting next to a gentleman who’s made much of his living publishing a local guidebook, and I pointed out that a digital copy of that book available to anyone could conceivably wipe out his business, or at least hurt it badly.

Shatzkin’s essay goes further to suggest that the divergent interests of big publishers and public libraries are further complicated by the industry’s longer game of trying to ensure that there’s enough competition for Amazon not to become a monopoly. Would cooperating with libraries mean hurting Barnes & Noble and other non-Kindle sources of ebooks?

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