ALA President Molly Raphael releases report on e-book talks with e-book distributors

American Library Association (ALA) President Molly Raphael released the following report regarding meetings with e-book distributors during the Public Library Association (PLA) Conference, March 13 – 17.

At last week’s Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Philadelphia, ALA pushed ahead with its goal of enabling library access to e-books to everyone in America’s communities. Sari Feldman, co-chair of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group  (and executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio), addressed the attendees at the Opening General Session. She acknowledged the serious concerns about e-books expressed by PLA and other ALA members and provided an update on the progress of the Working Group. Throughout the conference, members sought out Sari to talk about their e-book challenges and express appreciation for the PLA and ALA focus on this issue. Strong media outreach also brought our issues to the forefront in coverage related to the conference, including an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

We understand that publishers and libraries are not the only stakeholders in the e-book lending ecosystem. So as one of our next steps, we met with distributors in Philadelphia in the same way we met with publishers in New York in January.  Sari and I, joined by ALA President-Elect Maureen Sullivan, ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels, and ALA Office for Information Technology Policy Director Alan Inouye, met separately with the senior leaders of OverDrive, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and 3M.

One of our fundamental beliefs is that more choices for libraries are desirable, and we were gratified to hear strong agreement from all four of these companies. As libraries and distributors have many shared goals—among them maximizing the breadth and depth of publishers and titles available for lending, streamlining user access to e-books, and providing varying service options—we had much to discuss.

We explored possibilities for collaboration to conceptualize and develop business models and improve everyone’s understanding of how library e-book lending advances the marketability and availability of titles for all. Indeed, some distributors have library e-book lending pilots planned in the near future toward that end.

’Friction’—mechanisms introduced deliberately to make it harder for patrons to borrow e-books—came up in several ways. For instance, distributors that also serve the academic marketplace stated that friction is not central to their strategy there and, in fact, efforts are directed toward removing any remnants of friction. They are beginning with the same assumption in the public library marketplace, including the importance of excellent usability of their services to libraries and patrons.

Though e-book demand is growing rapidly, print books still comprise a significant portion of acquisitions in public libraries. Several of the distributors discussed how print books, e-books with perpetual licenses, and e-books with limited licenses each provide different functionality and should be viewed as a portfolio of varied resources, rather than mutually exclusive. Services to libraries that help us plan and manage our acquisitions, vendor relationships, and overall operations in an integrated way are desirable, rather than services that focus on e-books as an isolated resource.

Another positive development took place on March 14 in New York. I moderated a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) that included Jim Neal, University Librarian at Columbia University and ALA’s Treasurer, and Anthony Marx, President and CEO of the New York Public Library. The panel focused on redefining the dialogue between libraries and publishers and presented an extraordinary opportunity to talk with senior publishing executives. There were many questions involving e-books and libraries, as well as queries about library operations generally. Clearly, there was a hunger for this conversation.

An executive from one of the big six trade publishers could not make it to the AAP annual meeting. He sent me an email expressing regret about his inability to attend our session and suggested a phone call with me in the coming week to catch up on recent developments. Three months ago, such outreach from a major publisher would have been inconceivable.

I am encouraged by the progress in the past few months and that ALA is stepping up and speaking out. I also am keenly aware that talk does not equal the action that ALA members urgently need, but it is a necessary prerequisite to action. In our discussions, it has become clear that not everyone has a good understanding of how libraries operate, much less how libraries do (or could) operate in the e-book context. Correspondingly, it became clear that we in the library community do not have a good understanding of the e-book business—whether from the viewpoint of publishers or distributors. We all are learning, and I’m optimistic that this engagement will lead to tangible progress through our assertive efforts on behalf of our communities.”


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