Publishing Companies, Ebooks, and the Cost to Libraries: a Take

When I see an article wherein the thesis is “[BLANK] is a dying industry and here’s why,” I automatically roll my eyes and click off. It’s the modern equivalent of starting a college paper with “What is [BLANK]? The dictionary definition of [BLANK] is…” and then expecting an original argument. However, reading this Ars Tech article about the last ditch efforts from the Big Five publishing houses to remain relevant caught my interest long enough to keep reading and reflect. Not only are their limitations for ebook lending to libraries hitting close to home as an author and a publisher, but I have some skin in the game as a person with ties to a librarian. I, too, have noticed the strange, stingy trend with library ebook lending over the last two years and wondered if it was the fault of the library or if major publishers had staged a more concerted effort to starve out ebooks to favor paper book sales instead. This article gave me my answer. 

Yes, the traditional publishing industry is a dying industry, like print journalism before it and like burning coal soon after. That’s both a boon and a loss for authors: a boon because authors are free from relying on the whims and control of a publishing house, a loss because gone are the promotional materials, the book tours, the stacks of books with your face stamped on the jacket. This is only if you are a “successful” author, that is — one of the scant few authors who sell thousands of copies and earn the book tour, the meet-and-greets, the events, and all the bells and whistles that come with some MBA’s definition of success. In truth, the thousand-foot level job of a publisher is to print books to go to stores. If those books sell, they print more. If they don’t, those books sit in a warehouse where they collect dust, mildew and silverfish – a waste of time, talent, and paper for the world to never see. 

As an author, your book has to be marketable enough to sell enough books to warrant subsequent prints. But before you even get to the publishing stage, you have to cross the other stages of authorship, You’ll have to have an agent to shop you around. You’ll have to have an editor to professionally edit, pick apart, and tell you to rewrite your book to make it more appealing to an audience you did not envision. You’ll have to be rejected dozens, if not hundreds, of times from agents and publishers great and small, and feel like you’ve wasted thousands of hours writing a masterpiece only to be told it isn’t worth anything. Of course, first you have to stop dreaming and actually write the damn thing. 

I did my ambivalent dance around this model for years even as I wrote and independently published my current two novels. Like an actor on the audition circuit, I didn’t want to spend my whole writing life trying to be published. I had wanted to write books since I was 6-years-old and hated the idea of waiting for the opportunity. It felt like I was getting permission from people I didn’t know, who wielded power over me, who decided whether I was “good enough” to have my words put on their paper. 

Lucky for me, I went to college and honed my writing skills around the time Amazon Kindles and ebooks rose in popularity. With the advent of ebooks and Kindle Direct Publishing service (formerly, CreateSpace), the road to publishing skips over the traditional model and right to what the author wants: their words available to an audience. With an ereader, an audience clicks a button and a book, along with thousands of others, is available on a single physical platform that they can then slide into their purse, backpack, briefcase, or pocket. Best of all, the author can set that ebook price to be several dollars less than a print book to incentivize a reader into buying it. After all, it hurts way more paying $10 for a mediocre book than it does $2.99 for a book that outright sucks.

While it would be hyperbolic of me to claim that new authors self- and independently-publishing their own books without the need of Hatchette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster has killed the traditional publishing model, it’s indicative in their slow response to accepting ebooks as a legitimate form of publication. Way back in 2011, Amazon had already reported that ebook sales outsold print sales for the first time. However, in June 2015, the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision from a lower court that Apple, along with all five publishing houses, conspired with each other to fix the prices of ebooks in violation of the Sherman Act. In short, afraid of lower ebook prices cutting too far into their retail revenue, Apple (with the publishers’ backing) schemed to price ebooks higher than the Amazon price of $9.99, all to eliminate competition and control ebook sales. This is why, around this time, you would see ebook prices set to anywhere between $13.99 – $20.00 for new releases and print versions either lower or the same cost. This disincentivized the reader from buying the ebook, pointing them toward the print version instead, all to recoup the cost, time, and spent resources of a print book. While the court decision forced publishers to lower ebook prices and opened up better services like Kindle Unlimited, it showed they were not ready for how suddenly the cultural landscape shifted in favor of ebooks from print books. 

I am also a publisher, though, so the idea of spent resources is not lost on me as a publisher as well. I cofounded Witan Publishing after college with the intent of publishing medieval, academic scholarship that would fall through the cracks: books, papers, marginalia, and other scholarly works that were too short to make it to journals, but still required the same academic peer review as their longer kin. We settled on the ebook market initially because it was a market academia had yet to conquer and still hasn’t fully understood (it is, after all, academia). Recently, we expanded into print with a few of our books when we partnered with Medievalists.net’s Book of the Month club. We can justify the resources simply: first, the books print when the buyer purchases the book rather than us printing a stack and pushing them to stores. Second, we price our ebooks lower than our print books so our readers want to buy the ebook copies first. Regardless of the version the reader buys, the author sees profit (unlike in traditional academic publishing, where the author can sometimes never see any profits from their published work). 

At the end of the day, however, none of this business with the Big Five really affects me personally. I’m not an author signed to a major publishing house and likely never will be. The most they’ve done to bother me has been with the ebook price fixing, and that’s been annoying but never brutal. I’ve skipped out on reading The Goldfinch for years because I did not want to pay $20 for the ebook nor did I want to buy a physical copy of a book that will just sit on my nightstand and make me look pretentious for years. Yet where things become personal with me is with the libraries. 

My father-in-law is the head librarian of a tiny public library in a rural, Southern town in Alabama. He is very proud of his job. He is well-liked, respected, and versed in his industry. He organizes monthly events at the library based on the season or the time: for February, he pulls books and movies for Black History Month or Women’s History Month for March. He does light IT work for the numerous computers, events for children during the summer months, job fairs — you name it. He understands the importance of a library, especially in a town of just a few thousand people, and meeting the needs of an underserved community. Every month or quarter, he has meetings in the state capitol and every year he fights to maintain a dwindling budget for his library to keep these programs going. Reading this Ars Tech article about the Big Five choking out libraries’ abilities to lend out ebooks sent a new wave of fear and disgust through my stomach.

To check out an ebook through your local library, you work through a service called Overdrive, (providing your library works with Overdrive, which my father-in-law’s library does). This is just an app that you sign into with your library card number, and then boom — you have the ebook on your iPad or phone or other reading device. Once you’ve finished reading, you can check the book in or the book will disappear from Overdrive after the check-out period. It’s hassle free and you don’t have to deal with fines as you would a physical book. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, libraries have seen an upturn in ebook borrows due to the limitations of physical borrowing but also because there’s more time to spend reading while indoors. When I got sick two years ago, I checked out as many books as I could from my local library (and my father-in-law’s library — shh, don’t tell anyone) just to get through my severe depression. It helped save me. 

But e-borrowing has a huge drawback in its waitlists. New arrivals and old classics alike will put the reader at often 2 years on hold before they can borrow a book, discouraging the reader from borrowing and sending them to Amazon, B&N, or Apple’s book store instead. I noticed that as recently as two years ago and it turns out, that’s by design from the publishers: 

Libraries typically pay between $20 and $65 per copy—an industry average of $40, according to one recent survey—compared with the $15 an individual might pay to buy the same ebook online. Instead of owning an ebook copy forever, librarians must decide at the end of the licensing term whether to renew.

Meaning: publishers do not want readers to borrow from libraries. They want them to purchase retail instead, and libraries are feeling the pinch. Even worse, new titles from Macmillan were limited to “a single digital copy [..] until it had been on the market for two months” because the CEO felt there wasn’t enough “friction in the market.” While Macmillan put aside this bizarre and expensive policy a few days into the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries are already feeling the long-term effects of tightening budgets and, had the practice remained in place, there is no telling what would have happened to struggling institutions outside of complaints or boycotts.

Public libraries are not barren, soulless institutions scheming to siphon money away from publishing companies. A library is a “lifeline for some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities.” My father-in-law states that most people that come in to use the computers in his libraries are there not to browse Facebook or Twitter or play video games, but to fill out job applications. Last summer, more children than ever came in for the summer reading program. He takes requests for DVDs, which allows people who can’t afford to see movies to borrow them for free from the library. No other institution besides a public library can arrange for those activities without direct, out-of-pocket costs. A library exists as a beacon to all, but gives the most vulnerable communities the access they need to operate in a world that shuts them out.

Yet, every year, my father-in-law, like so many other library directors, has to fight tooth and nail for every line item in his library’s budget just to justify his library’s existence. Funding for public libraries has declined and, amidst the pandemic, Congress has set aside no economic relief for libraries despite the uptick in ebook use. Even a few courtesy licensing extensions through the end of the year at half the price won’t be enough to solve the problem of massive library funding droughts.

So with libraries still partially closed or as-yet operational, where does that leave us? Will publishers continue to withhold their ebook licenses until we are all waitlisted for the latest schmaltz from Nicholas Sparks? I don’t have a clear answer, but I have a few predictions for the future. 

Since publishing companies are hesitant to change or adapt to modern technology, I foresee more of a downturn in who they publish. Major authors with huge followings will likely survive, of course: the Stephen Kings, the Susanne Collinses, the Jonathan Franzens, and the Nora Robertses. But gone are the days of taking on the risk of a new author. But new authors still have Kindle Direct, the ebook market, word-of-mouth, and (ugh), social media for promotion. It won’t replace a book tour or huge signing bonuses, but it means the author keeps the copyright and control over their intellectual property. 

Hopefully, libraries will remain open in order to loan them out, too.