Saturday, August 11, 2012

Merging Hats?

For nearly twenty years now, I have worn two hats. Although at first glance, they might seem very different, they do both happen to be a shade of green (my favorite color), and so they may not be so different after all. My guess is that if I describe them, you, my readers, won't be able to figure out which is my librarian hat (worn throughout my days as a library assistant and student working towards her M.L.S., as well as while a library volunteer and now as a part-time librarian). My other one is my editor hat (worn all those years when I was working either as an acquisitions editor or a managing editor or an executive editor). One is a pretty, feminine, wide-brimmed hat that is fun and interesting. The other is extremely stylish (must be changed constantly to keep up with the times) and a bit serious, but sometimes I stick a little flower or a cool button on it to show it has a softer, more fun side, too. I know which one I think is which, but I'll let you decide for yourselves which you think is which.

Anyway, having assumed they were both very different and would look ridiculous, one piled on top of the other, I've always worn them separately, never together. But, yesterday, I discovered that designers have been toying with a new style of hat, one that might incorporate both, and I have to tell you that I can't be more excited, because, let me tell you, this hat is gorgeous. If you're one of those who has been moaning about the Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire, worried that we are all going to be left with nothing but the ruins of literature (yes, Fifty Shades of Grey and 500 knock-offs do spring to my mind), while the gorgeous temples that make us sigh in awe and wonder become things of the past, you just might be excited, too.

I lucked out on getting an advance peek at this new fashion in hats. Our library director happens to be on vacation this week, and she asked me if I could take her place and go to our Capital Region Workshop for Library Leadership. I was, quite frankly, flattered that she'd asked me, and I typically jump at the chance to attend such events, so, of course, I said "yes." And it was at this workshop that I got to hear Jamie LaRue speak. Jamie LaRue is the Library Director of the Douglas County Library System in Colorado (I'm now dying to visit his library), and he is an exceptional public speaker, but, what's really important is that he is doing amazing things when it comes to providing content for his library, the best of which is fighting publishers and distributors who have been making it more and more expensive for libraries to get copies of eBooks. You can get an idea of how libraries are being screwed by reading the blog post he wrote for American Libraries "50 Shades of Red".

If you can't be bothered to read LaRue's article, in a nutshell, thanks to the publishers and distributors, while you-all are paying $10.00 or so to buy your eBooks, libraries are paying upwards of $45.00 for each eBook title they buy. In my county-wide library system, we're about to announce our One Book, One Community book for 2012, but we have no eBook versions available to loan to our public (except what's on the Kindles we loan out), because an eBook version would cost us $86.00, and we just can't afford to spend $86.00 on one title like that (Pennsylvania is notorious for being a state that consistently ranks somewhere near the bottom when it comes to providing money for libraries). Most of our eBooks are distributed by the company that has the monopoly right now on such distribution, a company called Overdrive, and don't even get me started on how pathetically un-user-friendly they are, on top of charging libraries outrageous fortunes not to own, but to rent, content. They're slum lords, really.

Now, here is the exciting part. LaRue is an amazing director with a very sharp mind who isn't just sitting around complaining about this or capitulating to the corporate world. He's out wheeling and dealing, figuring out ways to get around companies like Overdrive, and the Big Six publishers, three of whom refuse to sell eBooks directly to libraries. He believes that libraries need to be the market force that changes terms, because libraries, unlike publishers and distributors, are not in the business of making as much money as they possibly can, with little or no regard to culture. No, he says libraries are in the business of collecting and distributing the intellectual content of our culture (I've never heard the library's role described that way, but I like it, don't you?).

How's LaRue doing this? He's using shareware to set up the ability to buy and own his own eBooks for the library. Since the Big Publishers won't work with him (yet), he's buying only print versions of most of their titles and turning his attention to independent publishers and their organizations (like the Colorado Independent Publishers Association). He's making money for his library, because he is offering the ability for his patrons, if a book is checked out, and they don't want to wait, to click on a link that lets them buy it directly from the publisher (and the publishers are letting him share in the profits from these sales because he's driving business their way). And he's going around encouraging other library systems to do the same. That's why he's using shareware. (I'm telling you, we had a roomful of very enthusiastic librarians yesterday).

What else is he doing? Well, this is where the new hat is being designed. He's also working with local authors, letting them publish their eBooks through him, for merely the cost of letting him have one free book (owning it, not renting it) for his library. He pointed out that libraries are full of readers, which means they are full of people who can edit, proofread, and review these eBooks -- many of them library volunteers -- so that authors can hit the marketplace, knowing their books have been vetted and with reviews they can use for promotion. No, these reviews won't have a NY Times byline, but they will give authors (especially first-time authors) many, many more opportunities to get reviewed than the standard review media authors have been dependent on for so long. And let's be real here: how important today is that NY Times byline? I'm guilty of having searched Amazon and Goodreads reviews to find out about books, and if I knew some site had reviews written only by library employees and volunteers, I can guarantee you I'd give it as much weight as I now give my favorite blogger reviews.

Why is this a good thing (besides letting me, maybe, one day, wear that new hat, working as an editor for a library system. I can see such jobs coming along in the future)? I mean, why is it good for you, the reader? Because if libraries start getting into the business of publishing, they are, as I quoted LaRue above, going to be doing so with an eye toward collecting and distributing the intellectual content of our culture. They won't be focused on the bottom line. Because librarians are book people, this new form of publishing will be run by book people (the way publishing companies used to be run), by readers, not by those who used to run GE and have now been hired to run Big Publisher #4, to keep it from going bankrupt. Those running the show will be focused on getting great writing into the hands of those who love to read it. This can only mean better content. No, it doesn't mean we'll eliminate 50 Shades of Grey (after all, it has its cultural place), but, you know, that thing called the midlist, which seems to have been shrinking into nonexistence over the years? We just might see it begin to grow again.

Who would've ever thought, back in the 1990s when I was in library school, that libraries might take on a new role, that of publishers? LaRue thinks we're at one of the most exciting times in history, a major turning point when it comes to collecting and disseminating content. I agree, and I am so happy to hear someone out there touting such positive news instead of moaning and groaning about a society that is slowly creating a second Dark Age. I can't wait to don one of those new hats, and in the meantime, I'm going to do whatever I can to help bring them to Lancaster County, PA.


Anonymous said...

That's fascinating. There is absolutely room for that, and a need for it.

litlove said...

Oh this IS exciting! Libraries as publishers is a brilliant idea (I'm thinking: why hasn't anyone ever thought of this before? which is a sure sign of brilliance). Also, I often turn to goodreads for reviews and would most certainly read a review catalogue put together by library users. This is all very good news!

Susan said...

Wow Emily, so interesting and positive - and what a brilliant as well as logical idea. Libraries as publishers, and collecting the cultural contents of a society - I really like that description.

I also had no idea that the Big 3 weren't dealing with libraries for e-books. Why ever not? surely they would be happy to distribute as many copies of their books (print or electronic ) as possible? I mean, they will make money on it, either way.

Emily Barton said...

Lilian, yes, fascinating indeed.

Litlove,I don't know why no one ever thought of it until now. Well, probably someone DID, but it's nice to see someone doing more than just thinking. All very good news indeed.

Susan, over the years, I've come to believe that publishers are Ostrich-like dinosaurs: way behind the times with heads firmly stuck in the sand. It takes them a while to figure things out, but they eventually do (although sometimes a bit too late).