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The End of Libraries, Part II

Oct 22, 2011
The threat facing public libraries is real.1 It has not made itself manifest as yet, because no commercial enterprise has assembled the eBook lending package which is demanded by an eReading public starved for content.

The threat facing traditional publishers on the other hand, is here, today, and it is equally serious. Not only is Amazon publishing authors directly themselves (122 titles are coming out this fall alone2 and many, many more are planned for next year), but authors are increasingly self-publishing on the Internet and many nontraditional publishing entities besides Amazon are springing up to help them.3,4

The authors whom publishers are likely to lose first are the ones who are most secure in their earning power and therefore of greatest value to them. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, for instance, will be selling the eBook versions of that popular series exclusively on her own website,5 Pottermore.6

Public libraries and traditional publishers can save themselves only if they act quickly and boldly. The following is what I think they need to do, and the only alternative to this course of action, as far as I can see, is a not-so-slow but an ever-so-painful death.

Publishers: Convert every title, new and backlist, to eBook formats that support every device out there. Give them all to a nonprofit business entity, which we will here call AmPLE, for American Public Library Enterprise. AmPLE will manage the eBook distribution to public library patrons.

Public Libraries: Determine your eBook budget for the coming 12 months and send a check for it to AmPLE.

AmPLE: Get your site up superquick and start lending to your libraries’ patrons. For every checkout, decrement the eBook account of the borrower’s library by 50 cents, send 45 cents to the publisher, and keep 5 cents for yourself. Patrons can check out up to three titles at a time regardless of whether one or a thousand other borrowers have borrowed them at the same time. And no due date. When a reader wants another book, they will return one.

Do the math. In today’s model, a publisher might sell—let’s be liberal—2000 copies of a blockbuster new title to 50 state library consortia (the standard arrangement today) for $20 each, or $40,000. Period. End of transaction. The consortia then sets about loaning these 2000 copies to their 330 million patrons, 2000 at a time for two-week checkouts. Ridiculous.

Or. Check out that same blockbuster, which the publisher has provided to AmPLE free of charge, to—let’s be conservative—a half a million readers on Day One, at 45 cents a checkout, or $225,000—almost six times the amount the publisher would have received on the old model, and that’s only on Day One. That one title continues to earn money for the publisher throughout its term of copyright—until 70 years after the death of the author.

The 50-cent “charge” for a checkout is a reasonable figure, arrived at by dividing the average library’s annual budget for new acquisitions by the average annual circulation7. This figure ranges from 25 to 75 cents for most libraries.

Today, everybody loses, and this includes the authors. They need the expert services of traditional publishers. They need the nurturing, the editing, the production, and the management of their work, freeing them to do the work itself. We readers need traditional publishers, for their selectivity and the imprimatur of quality which their selectivity exhibits.

And we all need public libraries, one of the last bastions of egalitarian democracy in the U.S. Through public taxation, public libraries provide us all with equal access to knowledge and a wealth of information services which must not be relegated to the sole province of the well-to-do. Study after study8 affirms the huge return to our society on investment in our public libraries.

As eBooks gradually—or perhaps not so gradually—replace the physical book, we need to ensure that our public libraries provide these resources as widely, efficiently, and economically as the technology allows. A system like the one described above does just that. Under this system, public libraries will flourish rather than fade, and everyone else wins as well—authors, publishers, and readers.
1 The End of Libraries, Part I. AllTogetherNow.org, Oct 18, 2011.
2 Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of the Deal, by David Streifield, from the New York Times, Oct 16, 2011, accessed Oct 22, 2011.
3 Lulu.com
4 Publishgreen.com
5 Harry Potter Ebooks To Be Released in Open Google Ebook Format, by Pamela Parker, Jul 20, 2011, accessed Oct 22, 2011.
6 Pottermore
7 Data File Documentation, Public Libraries Survey, Fiscal Year 2009 (.pdf), from IMLS, Jul 2011, accessed Oct 22, 2011.
8 The Value of Public Libraries, links assembled by Stephen Abram, accessed Oct 22, 2011.
tags: Books and Libraries | Media

The End of Libraries, Part I

Oct 18, 2011
I am a library manager, a convert to the eBook format, and very worried. Although speculation regarding the collapse of public libraries has been in the infosphere since the advent of the internet, the public library’s continued existence has never been more uncertain than it is today.

First, consider that in the face of growing demand, libraries around the nation are cutting back on new acquisitions, hours, and staffing. In tough economic times, public libraries, which are almost always primarily funded at the local level, are easy targets for cost cutting, and they are being targeted practically everywhere.

And then consider the advent of eBooks, which are exploding in popularity. Amazon sells more of them than they do hardcovers and paperbacks combined. There are four good reasons why eBooks will marginalize, if not eliminate, the paper-based book within a few years:

  1. Portability. You can access an unlimited number of books on one reader.
  2. Economics. For the publisher, the economics are irresistible—no trees to cut down, paper to manufacture, type to set, or books to print, bind, store, and distribute by truck, train, and plane to the four corners of the world. In time, those irresistible economics will filter down to the buyer of books in the form of greatly reduced prices, at which point Amazon’s eBook sales will go through the roof.
  3. Value Added. You can index, search, cut-and-paste, bookmark, and annotate eBooks. You can embed audio and video and Internet links in them. In time, eBooks will add values and features we aren’t even dreaming about today.
  4. Access. For the first time in history, you don’t have to go to the book. All you have to do is want it and, in a few seconds, anywhere in the world, the book comes to you.
Eighty-two percent of American public libraries offer their patrons eBooks, most of them through Overdrive’s online service. So what is the problem? The problem is content. There isn’t any. Too few books are available in the eBook format. Too few of those that are available are purchased by public libraries, typically through statewide consortia that share a central collection of eBooks among many libraries. And too few of the purchased titles are available for checking out. The checkout model itself is fatally flawed, where one purchased copy checks out to one library patron at a time for two weeks, just like a paper-based copy. Most titles in my state’s consortium have long waiting lists and a recent check of 50 books I have on my “To Read” list found exactly none of them available in my library’s eBook catalog.

And finally, consider Amazon.com. If they are successful in their current effort to get publishers to allow them to loan eBooks through their Amazon Prime service, the single most important motivation for supporting public libraries, at least to middle-class readers like myself, will vanish overnight. I will continue to vote for municipal taxes to support our public library, because I understand the vital importance of public libraries to a democracy. However, millions will not, and libraries from coast to coast will begin closing their doors.

I do not believe I am being an alarmist. We are in a political climate where public services are being privatized, downsized, or eliminated at a rapid rate. And if libraries cannot begin to serve their patrons’ eBook reading needs—and they don’t come close to doing so today—and an Amazon or other commercial endeavor steps in to fill that need, libraries are finished.

In my next posting, I will discuss how public libraries—and, for that matter, traditional publishers (their existence also being threatened by the internet)—can not only survive but flourish to a greater extent that they ever have, in this brave new eBook-dominated world.
tags: Books and Libraries | Media

Noted with Interest, October 2011

Oct 17, 2011

A Movement Too Big to Fail
by Chris Hedges. From Truthdig.org, Oct 17, 2011. Accessed Oct 17, 2011.

The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City: An Approved Message from the General Assembly
Via Jennifer Cusano. From Elephant Journal.com, Oct 4, 2011. Accessed Oct 8, 2011.

The Big Picture: A 40-Year Scan of the Right-Wing Corporate Takeover of America
by Don Hazen and Colin Greer. From AlterNet, Oct 3, 2011. Accessed Oct 4, 2011.

tags: Noted with Interest

Platform for a New Century

Oct 17, 2011
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement will fade away and fail unless a political structure is born from this social uprising. Chris Hedges, whose writings I admire as much as I do those of anyone commenting on the American political scene today, says the political process is dead, and street action is the only way to bring about change. He’s wrong.

The OWS movement is being tolerated now by a regime which has nothing at present to lose by its tolerance. The movement has stopped traffic a few times for a few hours. But it hasn’t stopped the momentum toward global hegemony which the corporatocracy has been pursuing for 30 years and which, at this point in time, is all but in the bag.

We will take our country back by ballot or by bullet. I cannot see any third alternative, and bullets are notoriously unpredictable. People are making noises about third parties, but nothing significant has been launched that I know of. The time is now.

A third party needs a platform that sets forth a substantively and substantially new direction for our nation. It must appeal to a broad range of constituents, including fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Partiers as well as the millions of liberal Americans who have become disaffected by a co-opted Democratic Party.

A third party needs to go after 435 House and 33 Senate seats first. Congress makes the laws, and presidential politics in America has been turned into little more than a smokescreen to keep our attention off the prize.

And a third party must put America back to work, in our factories and schools, on our infrastructure, and in the powerhouse laboratories where the entrepreneurial ingenuity of the American imagination will forge a new age of clean energy, world peace, and global liberty.

Here are ten planks in a platform for a New Century:

1. Assured employment opportunities at a living wage for everyone between the ages of 18 and 65.
2. An educational system second to none, with recognized national standards and public support; enhanced compensation for educators, with escalators for service and merit; and public support for post-secondary technical, occupational, and public university education.
3. Publicly supported universal health care.
4. A balanced federal budget.
5. Energy independence in 25 years via conservation, targeted taxation, and vigorous research and development of renewable energy sources to halt and reverse the damage to the environment caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
6. A capitalist economic structure regulated to serve the interests of the people, the nation, and the world. Globalization? Yes. But not at the expense of hard-won protections for workers and the environment.
7. A simplified tax system that enhances the competitiveness of U.S.-based businesses and reverses the unprecedented income inequality which has burgeoned over the past thirty years.
8. A redirection in our response to global terrorism from military action and occupation to a revitalized international police effort. Future executive branch military action will require a formal declaration of war by Congress.
9. Term limits for elective federal offices and regulations closing the revolving door between government and corporate affiliation.
10. A commitment to personal freedoms for the individual, when those freedoms do not directly and demonstrably impinge on the freedoms of others.
tags: New Political Party | Politics | Governance

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