Days after Douglas County Libraries published a worksheet on consumer vs. library ebook pricing, the library community is reeling with news broken by Infodocket in Library Journal that Hachette USA is raising its prices on ebooks for libraries by up to 220 percent. Hachette currently permits only backlist ebook titles to be sold to libraries, having withdrawn its frontlist titles in 2010.
In additional reporting, Hachette has indicated that it intended this action to go fully into effect earlier this year, but an internal Overdrive “systems issue” prevented these increases from being reflected until now. Hachette contends that this pricing is justified because ebooks do “not need periodic replacement as do print copies” and there is no limit on the number of borrows. [Overdrive admitted further error on Sept. 17, adjusting its previously miscalculated average price increase from 220 percent to 104 percent.]
Of course, there is no limit on the number of borrows for print books either, and I would really appreciate hearing from Hachette as to whether they are therefore guaranteeing that their ebooks will never become inaccessible and unusable as a result of future ebook format shifts, retailer platform changes, DRM transitions, and evolution in HTML standards and rendering conventions. Or, perhaps they see those as “acts of God” and not their responsibility.
In reaction to the news, American Library Association’s president, Maureen Sullivan, has issued a strong statement decrying these new price increases. After many months of attempting to encourage publishers to develop a fair market in ebooks for libraries, ALA was stunned by Hachette’s pricing move, and the president has “asked the ALA’s Digital Content & Libraries Working Group to develop more aggressive strategies and approaches for the nation’s library community to meet these challenges.”
Clearly, library engagement on these issues must move to a new level. An organized economic boycott of ebooks by libraries would have little impact because it is painfully obvious that many publishers would be happy enough for libraries not to have access to ebooks at all. Instead, a public education and communications campaign must be initiated that highlights how large international media- and publishing conglomerates are turning their backs on our communities, steadily eliminating the opportunity for all readers to have full and equal access to the world’s learning and literature.
However, I am afraid that even public relations will not re-empower libraries to fulfill their missions. It may be time to encourage Congressional hearings that would entertain the possibility of legislation to support public libraries. Rather than rely on a private sector that clearly does not always align with public needs, maybe the best long-term strategy will be to require the deposit of published books with one or more national digital libraries that would then provide ebook hosting services for the nation’s public libraries.
Whatever the resolution, it is imperative that library actions be escalated in order to obtain a comprehensive national solution to enable publicly funded libraries to meet the needs of the citizens they are chartered to serve.