Foster reading

Yesterday, I wrote that publishing success will likely start with meeting the explicit and implicit needs of readers, and users. Here’s an example of how we could go about making that happen.

It’s no secret that libraries, among other publicly funded institutions, are struggling these days. State and local-government budgets have been hard hit by the downturn in the economy, and states like California have been cutting library services deeply over the last three years.

At the same time, format preferences are changing significantly. Last week, digital library distributor OverDrive announced that the number of eBooks checked out in 2011 grew to 35 million, an increase of 133% over 2010. According to OverDrive, 22% of all library checkouts are now made via a mobile device.

The shift has caught some libraries by surprise, and even those that anticipated digital demand find themselves with limited acquisition budgets. The result: limited access to many popular titles.

There’s an unproven sense that, by making knowledge freely available, libraries support and even foster reading and some higher-order social goals, like democracy. In a 2006 interview with Glyn Moody, Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart saw digital abundance in those higher-order terms:

… the result will be an even greater overthrow of the previous literacy, education and other power structures than happened as direct results of The Gutenberg Press around 500 years ago. Here are just a few of the highlights that may repeat: (1) Book prices plummet; (2) Literacy rates soar; (3) Education rates soar; (4) Old power structures crumbles, as did The Church; (5) Scientific Revolution; (6) Industrial Revolution; (7) Humanitarian Revolution.

As I noted in my Books in Browsers presentation, “That’s kind of cool if you’re part of the proletariat, but it might be a bit unnerving if you’re an oligarch (or aspiring to be one).”

In publishing, the oligarchs have names like Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Hachette. Other than Random, these “Big 6” trade publishers have met the rise in digital demand through libraries by limiting availability (HarperCollins, Penguin) or refusing to deal at all with the channel.

I think this is a lost opportunity. Libraries could represent a net loss in sales of a given book, or even of books in total, but right now there is very little credible data to draw upon to decide where the truth lies. As if the case with assumptions about piracy, we truly don’t understand cause and effect here.

Now, part of what prompted Penguin to rethink its willingness to sell eBooks to libraries is OverDrive’s recent move to partner with Amazon on a Kindle lending option. As Eric Hellman aptly explains, “… the extension of Overdrive lending to the Kindle flipped libraries into the Amazon column.”

There we have it: friends, and enemies; winners, and losers. Two-party negotiations, a binary choice.

If you don’t follow Eric Hellman’s work, take a look at the post I linked to above as well as an earlier one on “Library data: Why bother?” He makes powerful observations about the opportunities libraries offer to publishers willing to partner with them. In his view, they offer more book sales (a good thing, last we checked) and improved discovery and access.

These are real-world examples of the opportunity in abundance. Rather than fight with libraries, why not trade these new opportunities and sponsor joint research that examines how libraries influence both near-term and lifelong reading? Why not explore options that challenge OverDrive’s dominance in the library space? Why not ask for some help?

And rather than try to deny Amazon a supply of eBooks, why not position ourselves as the industry concerned with developing a lifelong love of reading, and learning? Amazon may provide selection, speed and price, but it has never been a friend of reading or even a willing contributor to state or local taxes.

It’s an ideal, yes, but I think it’s a better option for publishers than keeping James Patterson out of digital libraries in the hope that Amazon will someday cry uncle.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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