Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Monday, September 24, 2012

An Open Letter to America’s Publishers from ALA President Maureen Sullivan

CHICAGO - The following open letter was released by American Library Association (ALA) President Maureen Sullivan regarding Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin refusal to provide access to their ebooks in U.S. libraries.

The open letter states:

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.

Let’s be clear on what this means: If our libraries’ digital bookshelves mirrored the New York Times fiction bestseller list, we would be missing half of our collection any given week due to these publishers’ policies. The popular Bared to You and The Glass Castle are not available in libraries because libraries cannot purchase them at any price. Today’s teens also will not find the digital copy of Judy Blume’s seminal Forever, nor today’s blockbuster “Hunger Games” series.

Not all publishers are following the path of these three publishers. In fact, hundreds of publishers of ebooks have embraced the opportunity to create new sales and reach readers through our nation’s libraries. One recent innovation allows library patrons to immediately purchase an ebook if the library doesn’t have a copy or if there is a wait list they would like to avoid. This offers a win-win relationship for both publishers and library users since recent research from the Pew Internet Project tells us that library users are more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library.

Libraries around the country are developing mobile applications and online discovery systems that make it easier to explore books and authors on the go. Seventy-six percent of public libraries now offer ebooks – double the number from only five years ago – and 39 percent of libraries have purchased and circulate e-readers. Public libraries alone spend more than $1.3 billion annually on their collections of print, audio, video, and electronic materials. They are investing not only in access to content and devices, but also in teaching the skills needed to navigate and utilize digital content successfully.

Librarians understand that publishing is not just another industry. It has special and important significance to society. Libraries complement and, in fact, actively support this industry by supporting literacy and seeking to spread an infectious and lifelong love of reading and learning. Library lending encourages patrons to experiment by sampling new authors, topics, and genres. This experimentation stimulates the market for books, with the library serving as a de facto discovery, promotion, and awareness service for authors and publishers.

Publishers, libraries, and other entities have worked together for centuries to sustain a healthy reading ecosystem – celebrating our society’s access to the complete marketplace of ideas. Given the obvious value of libraries to publishers, it simply does not add up that any publisher would continue to lock out libraries. It doesn’t add up for me, it doesn’t add up for ALA’s 60,000 members, and it definitely doesn’t add up for the millions of people who use our libraries every month.

America’s libraries have always served as the “people’s university” by providing access to reading materials and educational opportunity for the millions who want to read and learn but cannot afford to buy the books they need. Librarians have a particular concern for vulnerable populations that may not have any other access to books and electronic content, including individuals and families who are homebound or low-income. To deny these library users access to ebooks that are available to others – and which libraries are eager to purchase on their behalf – is discriminatory.

We have met and talked sincerely with many of these publishers. We have sought common ground by exploring new business models and library lending practices. But these conversations only matter if they are followed by action: Simon & Schuster must sell to libraries. Macmillan must implement its proposed pilot. Penguin must accelerate and expand its pilots beyond two urban New York libraries.

We librarians cannot stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide. We cannot wait passively while some publishers deny access to our cultural record. We must speak out on behalf of today’s – and tomorrow’s – readers. The library community demands meaningful change and creative solutions that serve libraries and our readers who rightfully expect the same access to ebooks as they have to printed books.

So, which side will you be on? Will you join us in a future of liberating literature for all? Libraries stand with readers, thinkers, writers, dreamers, and inventors. Books and knowledge – in all their forms – are essential. Access to them must not be denied.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wikipedia articles to ebooks

I haven't tried this yet, but it looks handy: converting wikipedia articles into DRM-free ebooks.

Book burning party in Troy, Michigan

This is about one of the most brilliant campaigns I have ever seen to reframe a political contest.

Troy Library from Jennie Hochthanner on Vimeo.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tax cuts and the economy

I know that evidence hardly has anything at all to do with political persuasion. But I submit nonetheless that this article, called, Do tax cuts lead to economic growth? by David Leonhardt, is an absolutely crucial contribution to our current debate. The article was published in the Sept. 16, 2012 New York Times, The Sunday Review, page 4. Let's start with the graph (and click to expand).

To quote Leonhardt, "Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush both raised taxes in the early 1990s, and conservatives predicted disaster. Instead, the economy boomed, and incomes grew at their fastest pace since the 1960s. Then came the younger Mr. Bush, the tax cuts, the disappointing expansion and the worst downtown since the Depression." Leonhardt calls this "one of the most serious challenges to modern conservativism."

Now Romney is promising -- as the centerpiece of his economic plan, apparently -- more tax cuts, and inevitable economic growth as a consequence. But why?

See "definition of insanity."

Y the Last Man

Recently I read through the graphic novel series, "Y: the Last Man," by Brian Vaughan, and illustrator Pia Guerra. This is the paperback run published through 2003-2008. It's a stunning work.

The premise of the story is that in 2002, all over the world, every male mammal dies, apparently simultaneously. Yorick Brown, a recent college grad and an amateur escape artist, and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand, are literally the last man and male monkey.

What works: the characters in the story are very well done, with surprising depth. Also surprising is that there really isn't a lot of sex in what some might imagine to be a lurid male fantasy.

What doesn't work so much for me was the trope of crazed female warriors, a sort of Mad Max ThunderDome post-apocaplypse scenario. I suppose that comic books have to have some combat. But I really wondered how likely it would be that women would immediately adopt the violent approach to problem resolution that so many of the other women in the series deplore about the vanished patriarchy. Although the changes in society are glancingly addressed around the globe, I'd like to have read more about that.

The writer was Brian Vaughan, but he clearly collaborated with his female penciler. I'd love to know more about their conversations. At any rate, this is an intriguing example of some fine science fiction writing in one of our culture's most interesting formats. The end is quite evocative. Recommended.

ebooks in the rural press

Sterling, CO is out in the eastern plains. And this Journal Advocate article is one the few, and one of the clearest pieces I've seen in the public media about the topic.

It's baffling to me that the local Denver Post recently did an editorial about the Department of Justice decision that consumers were being ripped off by agency pricing -- and yet local media does not seem interested in the far more overt gouging of libraries.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

With friends like these

In a recent press release, ALA President Maureen Sullivan talked about how librarians reached out in good faith to Big Six publisher Hachette, had cordial discussions, and left thinking that we'd laid a foundation for a solid and mutually beneficial relationship.

Then came the kicker: this week Hachette raised its prices for backlist titles (it still won't sell new titles to libraries) by up to 220%.

One can't help but think of the music industry. In an effort to hold onto corporate profits, the price of the packaging kept going up and up. Eventually, there was a consumer revolt, and disruptive new business models (as in the more consumer-friendly iTunes). Now think about those changes: today, there's no shortage of music. In fact, there's more than ever. But those music publishers who used to run things don't, so much. Most interestingly, musicians now often give their music away, finding it a far surer strategy to success. In the world of abundance, the problem is getting noticed.

It turns out that what mattered to consumers wasn't music publishers. We wanted music and musicians. And music survives.

The demand for digital books is growing, and libraries have to figure out how to meet it. By jacking up the prices of ebooks to unsustainable levels, some of today's legacy publishers are repeating the mistakes of the old music industry. Yet there's no shortage of writing -- in fact, libraries are more challenged than ever to track it.

We tried to make friends with Hachette. And as President Sullivan says, "with friends like these..."

Lesson: maybe what libraries and readers want isn't publishers. They want the creative work of authors. Maybe libraries need a smarter group of friends.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Great Indie Fiction Books

I'm proud to promote this workshop by our staff.

"Public Libraries at Work" Webinar Series

Alternative Reads:
Discovering and Sharing Great Indie Fiction Books with Your Patrons
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
1:00 p.m. Central

Get to know the wide array of books from small and independent presses, hybrid publishers, and self-publishers, during PLA's upcoming, hour-long webinar, “Alternative Reads: Discovering and Sharing Great Indie Fiction with Your Patrons.” Presenters Dedra Anderson and Lisa Casper, both from the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries, will provide insight into this burgeoning field of fiction and offer readers’ advisory to help you connect your patrons to lots of great reads off the beaten path. Complete Registration Information

Deadline to register is 4:30 p.m. Central on Monday, September 17, 2012.

Local authors on board

See this wonderful post by Pikes Peak author Deb McLeod about the past - and future - of libraries.

Monday, September 10, 2012

the Visible Hand of the Market

I'm very pleased to announce a new monthly report by the Douglas County Libraries. See this American Libraries blog to see both my explanation, and the report itself. In brief, we compare the prices of ebooks, for consumers, and libraries, according to the main channels of distribution. Scary.

See also this Publishers Weekly post by Peter Brantley.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

New times, new partners

Below is an earlier version of an article I wrote for the Independent Book Publishers Association. It has just come out in their monthly journal.

Public libraries in America buy about 10% of the total commercial publishing output; and closer to 40% of children's materials. But which books?

Over the past generation of librarianship, the answer comes down to four things:

* what our patrons ask for. Libraries aren't "free" -- they're paid for by the community. That's who we have to satisfy.

* what's pushed by advertising. Library buyers, whether distributed among professional staff, or assigned to a centralized collection profiler, are trying to anticipate demand. Public demand results from advertising. Print run and publisher marketing budgets are generally reliable predictors of the number of copies we'll need.

* what's reviewed. We tend to buy what's well-reviewed -- unless the demand trumps it. Books that wind up in libraries are typically featured in such titles as Booklist, Library Journal, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.

* what's carried by distributors. It's so much easier to deal with one middle-man who can wrap up reviews, ordering, discounts, and delivery. It's easier to write one check for six publishers than to write six. Over the last twenty years, this has resulted in a loss of relationships between libraries and publishers. We don't talk to them, we talk to our distributors. It has also resulted in a significant concentration of purchases from the Big Six (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster).

Together, and combined with recent challenges to library budgets (which tend to lag behind the general economy both in reduction and recovery) that means it's been difficult for independent, small, and self-published works to get into our collections. We don't know about them, our patrons rarely ask for them, and it takes more work to deal with them.

the ebook arrives

Then, following the appearance and consumer adoption of the Kindle, the Sony eBook Reader, the iPad, the Nook, and the smartphone, suddenly our patrons were asking us for all the usual books in a new format: the ebook.

An early ebook vendor was NetLibrary -- but they weren't set up for downloading to devices. OverDrive, founded in 2002, was for most libraries the only game in town.

The OverDrive business model was this: libraries couldn't buy books. We could only lease access to them. If we left OverDrive, we left behind the collections we had "purchased." We sacrificed ownership. Libraries had to pay what OverDrive charged -- slightly more than the consumer price. We sacrificed discounts -- which for most libraries, was a 40-45% reduction in the list price. OverDrive provided a hosted solution - so convenient! Which meant that we also sacrificed any control over the user experience. Our catalogs looked and operated one way; OverDrive, another.

This was the action of a single distributor, although it was clearly part of a trend. Take a look at your Kindle or Nook license. You don't own those books, either. I remember inheriting a lot of books from my grandfather, books that had a profound effect on my development. But in the e-frontier, when you die, your books die with you.

Then it got worse: publishers started changing the game on us. HarperCollins, worried that libraries would cost them sales on new titles (who would buy what you could borrow for free?) charged us (through OverDrive) for the book again after 26 reads. Random House, with no advance notice at all, tripled their prices for new ebooks. The latest Danielle Steele costs $84 a copy -- hard to justify when you can buy four or five hardcopies. Some publishers started talking about the importance of "friction" -- making the borrowing of a book from the library just awkward or difficult enough that it would be less hassle to buy it outright. In effect, this urged us to base our business model on customer inconvenience.

The remaining four of the big six wouldn't sell to us at any price. The largest distributor of ebooks, Amazon, used its own proprietary file format that only it could control. Long time distributor Baker and Taylor announced their adoption of their own locked-down ereader file format, thereby claiming our e-collections as their business asset, not ours.

Meanwhile, there was an explosion in new writing. Independent, small, and self-publishers found that the economic barrier of distribution was disappearing. By the end of 2010, there were 2.7 million self-published titles alone -- over 9 times the mainstream commercial output. The job of librarians is to provide access to the intellectual content of our culture, and suddenly it was obvious: the Big Six were not the most interesting kids on the block anymore. There was a chance to define a new market.

Ebooks weren't just another format. Librarians have dealt with that before (filmstrips to reel to reel to audiotapes to CD to MP3 to DVD, etc.). The ebook market broke our distribution model, and changed fundamental business terms. We were having new and onerous terms dictated to us, a raid on public funds that challenged our ability to fulfill our mission.

So libraries buy the book in hardback, paperback, large print, and audio (downloadable, CD and Playaway). Then we have to buy it again as an ebook, but this one we can't own, and can't sell. The result: a significant erosion of our ability to sample the intellectual content of our culture.

Myth-busting

Publishers and authors have a lot of misinformation about libraries. This might be a good time to bust the myths.

Myth # 1: Libraries just want to buy one copy, then give your book away to the world. The truth: No, we don't. We do want to increase access -- getting more books in more people's hands is part of the library's mission. But we understand and adhere to copyright. We pay for multiple copies in the ebook world, just as we do with print. At Douglas County Libraries, we have our own system to manage ebook checkouts (see "the DCL Model" below). We apply industry standard Digital Rights Management through the industry standard Adobe Content Server, and we check out books to just one person at a time.

Myth # 2. Libraries steal sales from publishers. The truth: No, we don't. Last year, my community of 300,000 people checked out over 8.2 million titles. They never would have bought that many. On the other hand, Douglas County residents did buy a lot of books. We have a lot of "power patrons." Research conducted by Bowker and Library Journal found that "For every two books they borrow, power patrons buy one. And, maybe most surprising, nearly two thirds of power patrons buy books that they had previously borrowed at the library." That study (see http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/library-patrons-buy-books-they-borrow-study-says/) was based on 2,000 library patrons. Our own study of almost 4,000 Douglas County patrons found much the same thing: The more people use the library, the more books they buy. We don't steal sales; we boost them.

Myth # 3. It's too easy to borrow books from the library. The truth: I wish. There isn't a public library in the nation that can buy enough copies to satisfy public demand. Most popular titles have waiting lists. It's not uncommon for people to wait a minimum of 12 weeks for bestsellers, or a even up to a year. Library budgets have taken a hit in recent years. We can't supply all titles to the world; we can barely keep up with our own communities. We're not trying to make things difficult for people, but we can't offer instant gratification, either. We can, however, form new partnerships that make it easier for patrons to buy books.

The Douglas County model

At the end of 2010, I asked my IT director, Monique Sendze, if we could accept a donation of an ebook. I'm not talking about snatching something off someone's Kindle; I wanted to know if we could receive, catalog, and deliver a book written by a local author and freely given to us for public use.

The answer was no. Right now, hardly any library can. But that's about to change.

After a lot of study, experimentation, and investment in programming time, the Douglas County Libraries now can accept such books. Moreover, we can and do buy them. At this writing, we have over 7,000 ebook titles in our catalog from over 800 publishers.

The features of our relationship with digital publishers should be familiar: it's much like what we do with print, with a few exceptions. Namely:

* we own the copies.

* we buy them at discount, set by the publisher.

* we integrate the content - and the metadata or cataloging descriptions - into our catalogs along with everything else. Books, ebooks, audiobooks, movies, music (and cover art and reviews) -- it's all together.

So far, that's what we've always done. What's new?

* we attach DRM to the titles by default. We make an exception for public domain or Creative Commons content.

* we have a built-in recommendation engine, offering suggestions for further reads based on popularity, reader ranking, and even one's own borrowing history (on an opt-in basis).

* if one is provided by the publisher, we post a link to purchase. Our patrons can check out what's available, put a hold on what isn't, or buy it outright. And the library gets a percentage of the sale.

In the past month, our patrons clicked the "buy it now!" button 5,000 times. How many of those resulted in actual sales? We're not sure yet -- once they leave our site, we rely upon the reporting of our partners. But we're confident that we are adding value not only to our patrons, but to the publishers.

After some early trials, we learned not to try to write a contract with each publisher. We want to employ authors, not lawyers. So all of our agreements are governed by a clear, simple, "dear publishing partner" letter, and a companion "common understanding" document. You can find them, and more information about the technical side of the DCL model, at the eVoke site established by the Colorado State Library (http://evoke.cvlsites.org).

The interest in this model -- which restores purchasing power to the public library, and predictability to the publisher -- has been extraordinary, both regionally and internationally. Our software model is designed for replicability, with significant Open Source components. Libraries can be trusted to manage content; we have only lacked the tools.

What's next?

We're also keeping track of those mid-list and independent publishers who have expressed a willingness to work with us. We're sharing our list with the many libraries investigating our model; and those libraries are sharing their lists with us.

If you have, or are developing, a significant inventory of ebooks (right now, we're looking for more genre fiction), contact me at the address below.

In a future article, I'll be more specific about how you can get ready to work with the library market, and what other new partnership opportunities we may be able to create.

In a time of great change, success goes to those bold enough to define a vision of the future where we can thrive together. Come grow with us.

James LaRue, Director
Douglas County Libraries
100 S Wilcox St
Castle Rock CO 80104
Phone: 303-688-7656
Email: jlarue@dclibraries.org

Spring can really hang you up the most

I play piano, although I'm barely intermediate in ability. I'm mostly self-taught, which could be the problem.

But the classics are so cool. One of them is "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (lyric by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf, copyright 1955).

After I played it today (from "the Big Book of Torch Songs"), I wondered how it was supposed to be done. So I Googled up some Youtube performances. There are a bunch of them, some quite lovely.

But before you die, listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Oh. My. God. Effortless perfection. Ditto for the piano. It's hard to imagine that such a thing is even possible.

Monday, September 3, 2012

LXDE

I mentioned in an earlier post that my little Acer Aspire netbook (purchased back in 2008) has been running Linux Mint. But in some important ways, it was very slow. I use it mostly just for browsing and email these days.

So I tried an experiment. I downloaded the LXDE environment -- supposedly a very lightweight and faster system. (This wasn't hard -- the metapackage was in the software manager program.) Then, using the same approach, I downloaded Chromium, an often faster browser.

And guess what? It is faster, quite noticeably so. Probably I should have tried this before trying to download and burn copies of Peppermint and the Debian-LXDE distros. But hey, it killed some time while I rested up from my travels, and it's good to have speedy little devices around the house.