When I travel, I’m often recognized by my hat, which I wear for warmth when needed, and always in avoidance of the sun. However, always wearing a hat means you can forget to take it off. Visiting Italy for a UNESCO meeting, I strode into an old, famous church, only to see an attendant approach me – smiling – but making a quiet, desperate gesture around his head. Having grown up in a religious family, I should have remembered that I needed to doff my hat when entering a church; I had forgotten my manners. In Milan, I got the message: they were happy to see me: but please remember where you are.
That moment of sudden awareness of the world came back to me while I was reading the flurry of news announcements heralding the return of Penguin to the world of library ebook lending. Libraries have drawn enough attention to the withdrawal of ebooks from library collections by large publishers that Penguin’s partnership with 3M and the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries garnered attention in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times; a striking development in and of itself.
In Penguin’s arrangement with 3M, all of their digital titles will be made available to the two New York City library systems in a provisional test, but frontlist titles will be “windowed” and withheld for a period of six months; further, subscriptions will have to be renewed after a period of one year, an odd measure to mimic the shelf life of a print book. These are interesting restrictions. Most recent studies of library patron’s borrowing and purchasing habits indicate that the most active library users are also the most active purchasers; a new corroborating Pew Internet study of library users will be released on Friday morning. These surveys suggest that windowing will indeed have an impact on sales: it will reduce them, by eliminating their exposure among patrons who would otherwise be among their most fervent marketers.
The mimicking of “shelf life” is another odd restriction. Certainly given the tawdry quality of many recent hardbacks – books whose spines crack and covers droop off like the wings of dead butterflies – it’s hard to argue that the shelf life of print books is short. But that’s an element of manufacturing design, not the innate quality of a book. How long any given book will last is more a function of the care with which it is put together than the number of times it is passed around. Publishers who make crappy books shouldn’t be using their cheapness as an excuse for taxing libraries for putting them to use.
It is also very much the case, as Jame LaRue recently observed, that books which “time-out” and self-immolate after a period of time, or in HarperCollins’ case, a specific number of borrowings, expose public libraries to risk both coming and going. Some licensed books never circulate, and represent a dead loss, while successful books have to be licensed anew. In other words, communities subsidize publishers’ “doorstopper” books, while being forced to pay repeatedly for titles that are already financially successful.
The business world publishers inhabit seems an odd one. Libraries have been trying to buy e-books from publishers since the digital dawn, but the largest and most successful publishers seem eager to avoid doing business at any cost. When they do agree to license their books, they invoke terms that obstruct readers at every turn. In this case, after NYPL’s president, Anthony Marx, importunely suggested that his institution might accept books under conditions that would be anathema to many librarians, Penguin seriously flirted with the requirement that patrons had to physically come to a library branch in order to check out digital books. According to Christopher Platt, NYPL’s director of collections, Penguin eventually backed away from this stipulation. Its extreme nature would have isolated them in public perception at a time when they are trying to innovate in direct customer relationships.
As the digital revolution races onwards, both publishers and libraries should be particularly trying to build relationships with the large portion of the population that is “e-unaware” – prospective readers who have not been introduced to e-books, or find their adoption too difficult because of digital illiteracy. Libraries can bridge these divides and increase the number of readers that no bookstore or online retailer would be able to reach. As K-12 schools release students into the summer, children from working class families face the loss of two months of reading skills during the break, while middle and high income children gain ground. Shouldn’t publishers be working with libraries to reach disadvantaged kids, and bring them into the only future for books that counts?
Like everyone else, I am happy to have Penguin come back into the library. But the manner of their arrival leaves something to be desired. Just like my uncouth exploration of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogia, I want to gesticulate wildly at Penguin and exhort, “Please, take off your hat when you enter this place; respect where you are.” I haven’t seen it yet.