Peace in Our Time: how publishers, libraries and writers could work together

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Publishing is in a weird place: ebook sales are stagnating; publishing has shrunk to five major publishers

You would have a lot more credibility if you hadn’t cited two myths in the first sentence.

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Considering the purchasing power that libraries have, it’s surprising how poorly they’re treated by publishers. In just our small library district, I’ve seen 50 copies of some of the bigger name authors’ books in circulation and those are all pre-orders available on the day of release. Multiply that times a few thousand public libraries and that’s a respectable amount. Add in school libraries and you get an idea why YA books post so many sales.

Plus librarian reader advisory beats even bookstore hand-selling for connecting readers with authors. Seeing a patron every two weeks for years means that recommendations get to be pretty spot on, and giving libraries greater access to ebook catalogs might finally break through the overwhelming discovery problem.


I like the concept, and it addresses some inherently important parts of the mechanism for ebook distribution, and reassessing a model that plays a little more fair for all, but I still don’t think it strikes at the root difference between the written word and other forms of consumable media.

The written word requires an active, dedicated level of attention that others don’t. You can watch a movie and do other things (or just listen to it), music even more so. The thing with music and movies is both also have a technological and skill barrier to entry. The equipment needed to create and produce music and film is far greater and far less accessible compared to the written word. The written word on the other hand requires a more dedicated level of attention, and also has the lowest barrier to entry in terms of a person’s ability to produce. This creates the necessity in many regards for a level of editorial oversight that readers are willing to cede to publishing houses (of various sizes). Because of our dedicated attention, we’re hoping that there is a gatekeeper providing quality control for wider distribution.

It’s not a perfect mechanism but it also limits our time investment in a piece of writing. Librarians rely on it as well when doing collection development (something that is becoming increasingly more important as budgets remain tight), and algorithmic selection of books is a system easily gamed (there was an article just recently about the 2000 page tomes junk publishers were putting out to generate fractions of a cent per click revenues).

Sales data, while a decent indicator still doesn’t strike me as the sort of useful quality control for the average reader who wants to avoid the truckloads of self-published dreck that clog many of Amazon’s platforms.


The Bandcamp model for eBooks isn’t a new idea. We’ve already seen several startups in this sector with this exact same idea come and go. Since this idea has been tried and failed several times, I’d be interested in what ideas there are to help it gain enough traction this time around to be a success. Digital music has a big head start traction wise over eBooks, but they’ve come into their own in the last number of years, so maybe now is the time to try again.

I’m all for supporting the authors directly and think they should always retain the rights to their own works the same way I think musicians and artists should.


Actually, the answer to this question from CD is at hand: what if libraries cloned Overdrive in free, open source code, which every library in the world could use, and which libraries could pay independent contractors to patch and improve?

A number of partners, including DPLA, New York Public Library, and many others, with grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Minitex, is developing an open source app that works across library eBook platforms called SimplyE. As part of the the project, the Library E-Content Access Project (LEAP) will be developing a library eBook marketplace, working directly with the publishers. All of this is non-profit, designed by librarians for the use of libraries. If you are in librarianship, please follow developments. The app is currently in development. Read an initial review here. We will need participation to make the marketplace project scalable. If we can, then libraries will have the very thing Doctorow has called for. It’s been a long time coming but may finally be realized.

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