When I got my library card, that's when my life began. ~Rita Mae Brown
As a kid, I looked forward to the arrival of the bookmobile. It was RV-sized and crammed with books. Every other week, I'd climb aboard, return the books I’d read and browse for more. Two librarians manned the vehicle—one drove, and the other kept the stock from falling. Both excelled at divining what a girl who'd loved Little Women might like to read next.
Throughout my high school years, I loved wandering the stacks of my town library, picking up books and scanning first pages and author bios. Back then, hardcovers were luxuries to average families, but the library put them in my hands week after week.
I wondered about the authors of the books I read, but did I think about the publishers? Doubtful, but I must have assumed they were happy to send their products to places where they'd be checked out by readers. I thought publishers and libraries were, excuse the pun, on the same page.
Either I was wrong or things have changed. Apparently, publishers don't like libraries' policy of lend-lend-lend. I wouldn't have known this if not for some publishers' refusal to make their e-books available to libraries.
As I wrote in a column for the women's fiction chapter of Romance Writers of America, we associate "friction" with politics and rubbing two sticks together to make fire, but Maja Thomas, a senior vice president of the Hachettte Book Group, uses the word to explain why Hachette, a "big six" publisher, won't make its ebooks available to libraries for lending. “Selling one copy that could be lent out an infinite number of times with no friction is not a sustainable business model for us,” she told Randall Stross of the New York Times.
Of the big-six publishers, only Random House, Penguin and HarperCollins make their e-books available to libraries. Penguin recently stopped making its new titles available and HarperCollins only allows an e-book to be borrowed 26 times before a library must purchase a new copy. When Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent.org compared the list of most downloaded e-books from libraries with the New York Times' best-seller lists, she found some notable differences. For example, forget about borrowing NYT bestseller 11/22/63 by Stephen King from the library as an e-book because its publisher, Simon & Schuster, won't allow it to be lent out.
Owens notes that publishers are not restricting downloadable audiobooks in libraries in the same way that they are restricting e-books. Alas, that, too, may change. Yesterday, Jane at Dear Author reported that Brilliance Audio, owned by Amazon, is pulling its e-book titles from the library market. (Scroll down to the fourth item Jane wrote.)
A song from the musical Oklahoma runs through my head. The first line's "Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends," and the chorus begins with "Territory folks should stick together." Publishers and libraries are mutually dependent. That may not be the best basis for friendship, but isn't it a reasonable foundation for alliance? Meanwhile, book lovers—authors, publishers, booksellers, libraries, and readers should stick together to foster reading in this generation and the next. Readers borrow books from libraries, swap them with friends, and grow up to buy them.
Towns and cities have slashed libraries' hours and cut librarians' book-buying budgets. That makes it doubly disappointing that some publishers won't allow library-lending of their e-books.
I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself. — I, Asimov. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Isaac ASIMOV