Saturday, March 31, 2012

What most people don't know about e-books and public libraries

It occurred to me while reading a blog post titled "Why Aren't There More eBooks?" on an Alabama public library website (link thanks to Lynne Thomas) that library patrons aren't the only ones out of the loop about the poor selection of e-books available through public libraries (and the difficulty of browsing that selection). I strikes me that few public librarians likely have much of a clue about the situation, either. This post, presumably written by a librarian, simply listed five corporate publishers whose books were not available and blamed the publishers for the unavailability of their e-books and audiobooks. While it's possible that some of these publishers are demanding unreasonable terms for library purchase of e-book and audiobook titles, it's not at all clear to me that that's what the problem is. (Yes, I know that one corporate publisher-- Random House-- has made unreasonable demands. But I don't know that about all the rest and therefore can't assume that it's true for them, too.)

What this blog post omitted to say is that one company-- Overdrive-- basically controls all library e-book and download-audiobook traffic. Not only that, they control the catalog for each library's e-books, a catalog that I doubt no competent library cataloger would ever have designed. If there's a public library lending e-books via any other system than Overdrive, I don't know of it. As far as I know (and please do correct me if there's another system in play), Overdrive exercises a virtual monopoly over library e-book distribution and does not facilitate a particular library's patrons to make requests to their librarians for particular purchases (the way most libraries do for print books). 

While I don't know what Overdrive's terms are for the large corporate publishers, I do know that they do not offer any terms at all for independents like Aqueduct Press. The bottom line is, you'll never be able to check out an e-book edition of an Aqueduct title from a public library because Overdrive doesn't want to bother with the little guys. What library patrons want is irrelevant. What acquisitions librarians would like to purchase is irrelevant. Overdrive is calling the shots.

And while we're on the subject of public libraries, I might as well point out something that a lot of people seemed to have missed: over the last three years, Aqueduct Press's sales to public libraries have plummeted. So, though if you wanted to borrow a print copy of Andrea Hairston's Mindscape you could probably do so without difficulty, the same could not be said for Andrea's Tiptree Award-winning Redwood and Wildfire. Libraries have been seriously menaced by the cutting of public spending in the US. One of the effects of that cut is that very few books published by small presses, regardless of their critical acclaim, will be found in the future in public libraries.  The impossibility for those libraries of distributing small press e-books only compounds the problem.

All of this makes me sad. I don't run Aqueduct Press to make a profit. (Which we don't.) I run it to bring strong books to the readers who want and need them-- books that the corporate publishers don't think will bring them a profit. Public libraries are a natural site for distribution of such books.

I use the Seattle Public Library's Overdrive system a lot, by the way. (There's hardly a day that goes by that I'm not using my Overdrive Media Console app.) I consequently spend a lot of time sifting through stuff I'd never in a million years want to read, wondering why the e-books I do want to read just aren't there (or are so hard to find). Only Overdrive can answer that question, of course. They're the ones who are running that show.


Kristin said...

This makes me really sad. I've been using Overdrive quite a bit for library e-books since getting around has gotten harder. I am always a little sad when I have to close it out and request a book through the main library website. At least I can have it sent to the cloest branch. I've been really lucky with requests for new books. Everything I've suggested from Nisi's Filter House to a book on breastfeeding have been added to the libraries collection within just a few weeks. They just started closing on Mondays in addition to Sundays, though, so access has gotten more limited.

Foxessa said...

It's the same here with the NYPL -- the lack of small press books now in the print catalog, and the abysmal availability for download in the audio editions of books.

Endless YA series of magic and / or mean girls, but something I'd want in historical fiction, no. This stuff is classified as historical fiction, btw. Which no librarian would do. Historical fiction as the Overdrive people classify is almost entirely romance in costume. Ugh.

Love, C.