This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 10, 2011 - you own nothing

On Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, publishing company HarperCollins announced that its already restrictive "license" for library "purchases" of ebooks had become even more onerous. Henceforth, an ebook sold by them to libraries can only be checked out 26 times. Then libraries have to "buy" it again.

It might be useful to step back and talk about how things work now. Douglas County Libraries currently spends over $3.3 million a year to buy a sample of the intellectual content of our culture. That's books, movies, and music.

For most books, we get close to a 50% discount. Why a discount? Because we are volume purchasers. Across the United States, libraries account for about 10% of all book sales. For children's books, it's over 40% of sales.

Libraries also have another effect: we help authors find readers. A handful of authors will sell all their copies. But for most writers, the problem is getting passed around often enough to start to make a name for themselves. Then people are more likely to buy one book, and watch for the next one.

What do we do with the books we buy? We talk them up, for one thing. Then we make them available to the public, regardless of age, income, or education. Libraries make it possible for everyone, for anyone, to find out what's going on the world.

As I discussed in a previous column, physical books take up space, and library space is limited, so we also have to get rid of a lot of books. That process, called weeding, shoves even more books into people's homes. Books often have a second, third, and fourth life, moving through church and thrift stores at heavily discounted prices.

So is this system of library purchase and resale good for authors? Yes. It increases the likelihood that someone will discover them.

Is that good for society? Absolutely. Literacy is better than illiteracy.

Is it good for libraries? You bet. Literacy is our primary product.

Is it good for publishers? Guaranteed multi-million dollar purchases, year after year, coupled with a free marketing force to grow audiences for their books?

HarperCollins doesn't think so.

Here's how the ebook market is shaping up for libraries.

1. We can't buy an ebook at all. We rent it, and the file doesn't even live on our own servers. It remains in the cloud, usually very poorly integrated into our catalogs. That means that people have to look in multiple places for content, which is less convenient.

2. The library price for ebooks, rather than being half retail cost because we are volume purchasers, is often twice the retail cost. Publishers say, but libraries let lots of people read them! We let lots of people read paper books, too, and you can't tell me that hosting a file is anywhere near as expensive as printing and distributing a physical item. Publishers want a much higher price (a 100 percent increase) for a product that is much cheaper to produce.

3. When a book is no longer popular, libraries can't resell or give away things they don't own. That means no more booksale income for the library, and no more cheap copies of reasonably current ideas for the public.

4. Under the HarperCollins scheme some books may disappear altogether. Each title will have a metered use. Want it again? Well, publishers often take books off the market for a while. And publishers may not survive.

5. Some ebooks, such as those from Amazon, are device-dependent. If you, as a consumer, buy one from Amazon, the license says you can only read it on a Kindle. What happens when your Kindle dies? Well, you either buy another Kindle, if there is one, or start building your library all over again. It's like having to buy another copy of a CD for every player you own.

6. Alternatives. A few new ideas have sprung up -- Kindle owners lending to other Kindle owners, a proposed national digital library, and the growth of new self-publishing sites.

And we need alternatives. The way things are shaping up, publishers will try to make it impossible to own a book. They want to monetize the transmission of ideas, to the detriment of author and reader alike.

It's the same strategy championed by music publishers. And we know how well that worked out.

LaRue's Views are his own.


  1. I have already had this happen to me with a library Kindle. I kept trying to open a book, finally returned the Kindle thinking it was broken, but there were too many uses of the title. So, I bought a color Nook and love the lending feature.

  2. Yeah, that's the future as envisioned by publishers.

  3. Amen.

    You recently commented on a library listserv that a boycott might be in order. I understand the desire to fight back, but fear this would be a disservice to both patrons (unable to get particular titles), and libraries themselves (less relevant if readers can't get desired titles from us and head to Amazon instead, if they can afford it).

    I'm curious to hear if Colorado libraries are banding together to negotiate with e-publishers. What other options are there?

  4. AS I posted at libraryrenewal.org:

    We need multiple responses, I think.

    First, we need to communicate to the public, not just each other, that some publishers won’t sell econtent to us at all, and that others have unilaterally changed licenses to raise prices and limit use. Every librarian should post the ebook user’s bill of rights on every OTHER non-library blog or website they can. And write articles for the popular press about it. Feel free to use, repurpose, with or without attribution, any part of the column above that you please.

    Second, we need to build our own systems for publishing, managing, and integrating econtent into our own catalog and local cloud all digital content. It’s not hard. Buy Adobe Content Server. Break the dangerous dependency on vendors, and their fragmented and clunky interfaces.

    Third, we need to reach out to smaller and independent publishers, much as the music folks did. Smaller houses are eager to gain greater access to library audiences.

    Fourth, we need to become publishers ourselves, in a more deliberate way: grow authors, build an ecosystem of editors, indexers, book designers, and research assistants so the library becomes a hotbed for local content creation.

    Fifth, we need to actively acquire free and creative commons content, developing our econtent management skills in the process.

    Sixth, we need to step up our visibility as tech trainers: comparing ebook readers, teaching people about downloads, developing our own mobile apps. The public will either see us as a friend who leads us to the future, or a backward looking institution that just couldn’t cut it in the 21st century.

    When should we start? ALL of these are perfectly doable beginning this moment.