Thursday, April 18, 2013


The traditional world of book publishing has been broken, and we are now trying to figure out how to fit in to this Brave New World. Publishing companies are no longer the independent imprints that literary America grew up with. Publishers such as Viking Press, Harper & Brothers, Doubleday, Scribner & Sons, Houghtin-Mifflin, Harcourt,  and Knopf, publishers of the great American novels, fiction and quality non-fiction, have all been swallowed by conglomerates. 

These publishers are becoming part of ever larger conglomerates – Random House, which has consolidated Knopf, Crown, Dial Press, Doubleday, Dell, Ballantine, and Delacorte, is now owned by the German company Bertelsman. Penguin consolidated the publishers Dutton, G.P. Putnam, Viking Press, and Grosset & Dunlap. Penguin is owned by Pearson, an English company. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp owns HarperCollins, and Macmillan (who consolidated Henry Holt, Little, Brown and St. Martin’s) is owned by Holtzbrink of Germany.  Simon & Schuster is a division of CBS. And now the two publishing giants  Bertelsman and Pearson will merge.

While the conglomerates play a game of thrones, readers, authors, book sellers and libraries are buffeted by strong winds of change, winds that are clearing the decks of many players. Although change has been occurring for years in the publishing and retail sectors, the advent of ebooks has added gunpowder to the mix. Ebooks in 2012 accounted for 23% of book sales. and of the 250,000 or so self-published books, a majority of these are now self-published ebooks. With the Barnes & Noble Nook, 25% of sales are from self-published ebooks. Over at Amazon, which has 65% of the ebook market, it is estimated that 30% of ebook sales are those from self-published authors. This represents a huge evolutionary step in self-publishing.

This phenomenon has helped many authors, and may also help libraries in the future. As it stands, the major publishers have been reluctant to "sell" ebooks to libraries. They have changed the rules of the game under which libraries and publishers have operated for 200 years. Although ebooks sell cheaply through Amazon and other sellers, the publishers charge libraries  three or four times retail for their ebooks, and they add other restrictions like the number of times libraries can check out an ebook before libraries are obligated to "buy" another one. As for authors, most writers routinely have their manuscript submissions rejected. Of those that are picked up, only a small percentage make a decent advance or regular royalties. Now with the relative ease of self-publishing electronically, authors are by-passing publishers altogether. 

Of the 250,000 or so self-published books ( a conservative estimate), a majority of these are now self-published ebooks.  The average price for an e-book is now below $8, with many in the $1.99 and $2.99 bracket. Amazon offers its Kindle Direct Publishing service for self-publishing, and Smashwords offers another self-publishing service for authors. The total number of ebooks, self-published or otherwise, will continue to grow.

"Buying" ebooks is actually a misnomer. Libraries (and the public) only lease ebooks. The normal written agreement when obtaining an ebook, spelled out in very long and not very clear legal language, states clearly the terms of this arrangement. Perhaps this may come as a bit of a surprise, but you can't re-sell your ebook as you could re-sell your printed book. The legal doctrine of "first sale," after which you (or libraries) could sell, loan, or exchange books does not apply to digital properties under new copyright laws. Thus the restrictions for libraries on the number of loans.

Behind the scenes, the road to ebook sales by the big six publishers has been bumpy. The publishers wanted to combat Amazon's selling of ebooks at less than what it was buying them for - a practice the publishers thought would erode their sales and revenues. When Apple planned  to launch its iPad, it reportedly convinced five of the six big publishing conglomerates (Penguin, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Hachette) to set up an “agency model” for ebook sales. With this model, Apple would allow the publishers to set whatever price they wanted, as long as Apple got a 30 percent commission. And because publishers had to offer the same contract to all “like” retailers this would apply to Apple and Amazon. The publishers accordingly demanded that Amazon raise its prices. Amazon wasn't happy, so it most likely blew the whistle to the feds. The issue was that if Apple and the publishers had agreed to set a price, this was illegal. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Department of Justice  filed an anti-trust lawsuit  against Apple and the five publishers, alleging price fixing. The publishers one by one decided to settle rather than to fight this battle in court, and ebook prices dropped back down.

Meanwhile, three bookstores have filed a class action lawsuit against Amazon. In the suit the stores claim they are filing the complaint “on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated brick and mortar bookstores.” The stores are making the claim that Amazon holds a monopoly on e-book sales in this country, maintained in part by their use of a proprietary DRM (Digital Rights Management) format, and that the big six publishers are complicit with Amazon in establishing contractual terms by which those DRM-based ebooks are sold exclusively through Amazon. Their lawyer stated, “We are seeking relief for independent brick-and-mortar bookstores so that they would be able to sell open-source and DRM-free books that could be used on the Kindle or other electronic ereaders.” This essentially means than having ebooks for sale that aren't restricted to one particular brand of electronic reader like the Kindle.

With reduced profit from the sale of ebooks, some publishers are deciding to get in the game of selling their services to aspiring authors. Penguin now has Author Solutions, a separate entity that sells self-publishing services like marketing, publicity, and even publishing of your book - all for a healthy price. And at Random House, its science fiction imprint Hydra decided to do away with author advances (an initial payment to authors in advance of royalties collected). In this plan, Hydra stated that authors and publishers would share the risk in producing a book and would share in the proceeds. Hydra would take the first cut of the profits to cover its costs and the rest would be split between the author and publisher. After the Science Fiction Writers of America loudly complained, and a shower of criticism was made by authors, the plan was  dropped.

Coming along with the increasing numbers of ebooks, and becoming an increasing problem with print books, is how do you discover what is out there and available? Looking for a particular author's book is simple enough, but when you search for new books by topic or subject through a device, how long will your patience last before you just settle on the first few scrolls? With fewer brick -and-mortar bookstores, how do you browse for or find a book serendipitously? Publishers are finding this to be a problem. Discoverability is the name of the game for where and how books and ebooks (or any information sources), are placed in front of a searcher's eyeballs. This will become an increasingly important function for libraries.

With books increasingly becoming digital ebooks, and libraries unable to own them, what will the long term scenario be for archiving books? Paradoxically, the relative ease of preserving digital files will be contrasted by the lack of this being done by anybody. Publishers don't have the mission of preserving even their own printed books, will they care about ebooks that never sold well? The books that Google has digitized over the years, along with research libraries, are print books, not ebooks. Will self-published authors preserve their own works for the long run? Will archaeologists of the future be digging up old e-readers in the hopes of extracting some lost ebooks? The copyright issue is making all these trends murky.

The good news is that digital technology is making it possible for libraries to make easily accessible a variety of special collection documents and photographs, including the contents of historic local newspapers. The Coronado Public Library has its own plans to deploy the Coronado PhotoAtlas project and to digitize over one-hundred years of Coronado newspapers.  And we do provide ebooks through the Coronado Library/Serra Library Cooperative Overdrive platform.

Another renaissance is coming for libraries.