Authors: say yes to libraries!

Peter Brantley -- June 28th, 2012

One of the things I have been thinking about recently is alternative ways that libraries can be agents for change on their own behalf by engaging more directly with the publishing industry. New tactics might enable a larger number of books to be available for lending.

Efforts that straddle public access and traditional publishing are growing, including Eric Hellman’s Unglue.it, the Harvard Library Innovation Lab’s Library License, and exploratory work developing at Berkeley Law. All attempt to provide greater access and library lending with the consent of the publisher or author, as rightsholder. These are creative approaches to the access problems raised by digital content. In the print world, no separate exception or limitation was necessary for lending, because at least up until recently, the First Sale Doctrine meant that a library could re-use the book as it pleased. However, for digital materials, access, reproduction, and distribution are restricted through licensing, and the concept of digital first sale, which might enable automatic lending rights, is subject to uncertain interpretation.

In the light of these new initiatives, a “Get them while they’re young” opportunity emerges that is worth exploring. Instead of always negotiating with publishers for lending, libraries could begin earlier in the production process: start with the author. By the time a publisher is handing a book to distributors and retailers, the contractual package for geographical rights, subsidiary rights, movie rights if any, various promotions, and so forth, is already established; the zeitgeist of digital book acquisition and use turns to licensing restrictions conditioned on prior rights negotiations.

If libraries could mount a campaign directly at authors and agents, it could help broaden access to books. Librarians could raise awareness that an author should “Say yes to your library!” and write into their contracts the requirement that their book be available in the library market without onerous limitations. I have yet to encounter an author who can claim to be impoverished by having their e-book available in the library market; the idea seems farcical. Yet, libraries have been stolidly trying to respect publishers’ fears that a library relationship would cost them sales, despite evidence that passionate readers both buy and borrow books. Even recalcitrant authors have recognized the value of their books being available at libraries.

Earlier this week, Smashwords announced a groundbreaking agreement with Califa, the California public library consortium, in which they would agree to sell up to 10,000 books for lending by California libraries. The CEO of Mark Coker had gone direct to his authors and asked them if they wanted to make their books available for lending; the answer was clear. Of the surveyed authors, 82 percent believed that library access would help them sell more books; almost one quarter were willing to give their book to the library for free. As Mark Coker said, “The big New York publishers are treating libraries like second-class citizens, so I see this as a real exciting opportunity for indie authors to move in and serve the needs of libraries.”

Libraries could help make this happen by working directly with authors, and educating agents, about the virtues of library access. A campaign directed at authors to “Say yes to your library” might go a long way to breaking the log jam made by the busy beavers of Big 6 publishing.

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