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The Last One Standing

by James LaRue on April 25, 2013

Back in 2008, I was interviewed by a reporter. With a sly and knowing air, he asked me if libraries were going to survive the Internet. On February 27, 2009, after 150 years of operation, his newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, printed its final edition. Now when reporters ask me that question I answer, “You bet we’ll survive. Will you?”

Trends in Publishing

Two key trends have emerged that will drive the future not only of publishing, but of public librarianship. They are:

  1. The rise of e-books. By the end of 2010, Amazon reported that it had sold 115 e-books for each 100 paperbacks, and 3 e-books for each hardback.1 On October 19, 2011, author Erik Larson told me at a local book talk that his most recent book, In the Garden of Beasts, had sold 500,000 copies––and that fully half of them had been e-book sales. While probably fewer than 20 percent of Americans own an e-book reader (Pew reported a 12 percent number in May 2011, and that number had doubled since November 20102), they read a lot, and every holiday boosts their number. Beyond the steady growth of this market, there is also a compelling economic force: Even best-selling authors typically make only about 10 percent on each sale of a print book. But with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and a host of new e-only publishers such as Smashwords and BookBrewer, authors are getting 70 to 90 percent of the sale. (And there is some anecdotal evidence that commercial authors are now getting a higher royalty on sales from e-books than from paper.) E-publishing is attractive not only to established authors (who already have an audience), but new authors with dreams of making a fortune, beholden to no one. Finally, there are also authors who are adopting the Creative Commons license, for whom e-publishing is simply a low cost way to get their message into the world.
  2. The rise of self-publishing. In 2004, there were 29,000 self-published titles in the United States. By 2009, that had grown to 766,000––roughly two-and-a-half times the output of commercial publishing. By the end of 2010, there were more than 2.7 million titles.3 Such phenomenal growth presents profound challenges to librarians: How can we stay on top of such a flood of new content? How can we determine what’s good? How can we manage the acquisition and cataloging of even the best? It is the job of the public library to gather, organize, and present to the public the intellectual content of our culture. Yet few public libraries collect any self-published works at all––typically, only the most persistent of local authors, and then, probably on topics of local history. The truth is we really don’t know what’s out there. Wouldn’t now be a good time to start finding out?

The Problems of Outsourcing

Certainly, librarians have heralded the coming of the e-book for a long time. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad that the demand really took off. When patrons showed up after last Christmas asking for e-books, there was really only one public library solution: OverDrive.

The good news is that OverDrive gave us a solution when we needed one. It was very much like the model we had followed with periodical databases: We outsourced the content aggregation, indexing, and presentation to a vendor. That made it familiar. But that outsourcing has brought along some troubles, too. I see four of them:

  1. Loss of ownership. My library’s current OverDrive contract specifies that if we leave OverDrive, we also leave all of the content we have licensed.
  2. Increased costs. While I have not done a title-by-title comparison across the board, I have concluded two things. First, most OverDrive licenses exceed what a consumer would pay for the same title if available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Second, while sometimes e-book prices are lower than the comparable print version, suddenly we have lost a mainstay of library budgets: the discount. My library’s collection budget currently exceeds $3.5 million annually. For that, we negotiate buying discounts up to 45 percent. OverDrive also charges an annual platform fee. Moreover, as with the state of Kansas, OverDrive has shown itself willing to unilaterally demand price increases of up to 700 percent over a four year period.4 Then, of course, there’s the HarperCollins notion of charging an additional license fee for materials circulating more than twenty-six times. At this moment in history, e-books, despite the fact that they are cheaper to produce, are relatively far more expensive to “buy.”
  3. Confusing user interface. Again like the multiplicity of database vendors, the OverDrive model of e-book provision splinters the user experience. We might have MARC records for OverDrive titles, but the instant patrons selects one, suddenly they are yanked out of our catalog and dropped into a system that looks, feels, and operates very differently. This fragmentation of the user experience makes library use unpredictable, cumbersome, and difficult.
  4. No used e-books. This is a twist on the “loss of ownership” issue. The secondary market of print––whether withdrawn from or donated to a library––is huge. Libraries recycle books into communities in many ways: nonprofit organizations, thrift stores, churches, charter schools, overseas charity efforts, overseas troops, and not least, poorer families and students, who pick up books at pennies on the dollar. There are no used e-books. That means fewer books in homes, fewer people getting into the habit of buying books, fewer people discovering authors.

Disruptive Technology

Sometimes print is profoundly disruptive. The first time was the invention of moveable type. The surge of print––mostly of Bibles––directly resulted in a profound challenge to the most powerful institution of the time, the Catholic Church. When people could read the Bible for themselves, they formed their own opinions, sometimes different from those of the parish priest. The rise of literacy is directly related to the secular fall of the church.

A second example is the age of the broadside. At the end of the Colonial period there was an explosion of political writings. People––like Benjamin Franklin––went to the local newspaper printer to print up often anonymous screeds of 8, 16, 32, or 64 pages. That’s where Thomas Paine got his start, and many others. The broadside––the blogs of the day––launched a revolution.

The third example may well be the self-published e-book. It’s fair to wonder which institutional power or powers will fall this time.

There are now at least seven links in the public library chain of distribution from author to reader: author, agent, publisher (which includes acquisition, editing, copyediting, book design, cover design, printing, and marketing), reviewer, distributor, library, and reader. I don’t see how we can do without the first and last of those. But for everyone in between, we had better be able to show that we can add value at a reasonable cost, or the reader will simply step around us. If reviewers can’t keep up with 2.7 million new titles, we’ll need new strategies (see “crowdsourcing collection development” below). If distributors require us to buy materials in proprietary formats (Amazon’s mobi and Baker and Taylor’s Blio), then we will contact publishers directly. If publishers won’t sell to us at all, then we’ll talk to agents. If agents won’t talk to us, we’ll talk to authors––many of whom grew up in libraries and want their works in our institutions. And let’s not forget that most of those 2.7 million titles are from authors who are unattached. To them, the library might become the publisher and the bookseller. But I’ll say more about that below.

My point here is that public libraries don’t have to sit back passively as publishers and distributors unilaterally redefine the terms of our relationship. These commercial entities now comprise less than 12 percent of the market of new content. While not all of that nontraditional content is “good,” some of it may be wonderful. In a time of disruption, do we put our time and money into maintaining the old, or do we leverage our skills and talents into something new, but more vibrant and alive?

Managing Our Own Content

What drives a lot of publishers right now is fear. They saw what happened to the music industry. One file gets out on a peer-to-peer network, and sales disappear. Putting that book file on a secure third-party server (OverDrive, 3M, or other) and licensing its access looked like a way to lock it down. Indeed, licensing looked more profitable than selling. Surely they could make more money charging per view or per year than allowing many readers for one purchase.

Publishers are also extremely wary of Amazon, which has decimated many bookstores, the traditional consumer outlet for publishers. Amazon is driving down the margin of profit, particularly for used books.

It’s also the case that many publishers don’t really understand the value of the library market. Some think we steal sales from them. The truth? We account for about 10 percent of publisher sales5 and 40 percent of children’s.6 Public libraries account for about $1.8 billion of sales a year. Other studies show that libraries directly promote the publisher’s bottom line.7 “Our data show that over 50 percent of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library,” said Library Journal executive editor Rebecca Miller.8

When librarians thought of an e-book on their catalogs, they saw the possibility of instant gratification. An electronic file doesn’t have the limitations of physical items. They imagined being able to satisfy every single demand for a new book simultaneously. We could replace the market of scarcity with a market of abundance.

But that won’t work. Publishers can’t stay in business if they sell one copy to institutions that used to buy hundreds. And authors can’t make a living––without whom we have no content at all.

I was myself content to think that some new licensing model might be in order until I spoke with a friend and colleague, Joseph Sanchez, then the director of the Red Rocks Community College, and now associated with the University of Colorado Denver. “If we maintain the existing model ––one user at a time––then what does a publisher have to be afraid of?”9 It’s true that the file doesn’t “wear out.” But most library materials aren’t discarded because of condition; they’re discarded because they are no longer in demand. Our patrons mostly want what’s new.

The more I thought about that, the more brilliant I found it. This is a case where the existing model––libraries buying at discount, managing the content ourselves, “checking it out” to one patron at a time, buying multiple copies to meet demonstrated demand––translates very well into the e-publishing world.
So I asked Monique Sendze, my associate director of information technology, to investigate a method of circulating digital rights management (DRM)-protected content. Her article, “The E-Book Experiment,” details the infrastructure she has now built (see page 34).

In brief, that e-content management system includes the following components and features:

  • A Vufind (open source) discovery front end. Vufind integrates searching, displaying, recommending, ranking, reviewing, and delivering the content to a private cloud. There is one user experience, for print or digital content.
  • An HTML5-based online e-reader for all e-book content (and another “browser” for audio content). This software remembers where you are in a book, allowing you to read it across multiple browser-enabled devices. All you need to do is log into your account.
  • Free content (Project Gutenberg, public domain, Creative Commons) sits on a MYSQL server. It can be downloaded freely. But it too is in the catalog.
  • DRM-protected content lives on an Adobe Content Server (ACS). This industry standard solution is used and understood by many publishers. It’s what OverDrive and 3M use. It controls the download of e-pub files to supported devices. To my knowledge, only the Internet Archive and the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries (DCL) have adopted ACS for use in a library setting. That should change.
  • Visual display on the library catalog, a large screen LCD powerwall, and a mobile application. One of the biggest questions in the twenty-first century will be how do people find the book they’re looking for? Libraries are a big answer to that. As much as 80 percent of our adult circulation is driven by displays. Less than 20 percent is driven by catalog searches. It’s reasonable to think that a similar pattern might be true of e-books. This is our solution to the sociability and serendipity of browsing––touchscreen displays based either on community use (popularity, ranking, newness) or private use (your own reading history on a mobile app).
  • A link to purchase. In an effort to demonstrate our value to publishers and authors, we’re experimenting with inserting either generic links (to Tattered Cover, our amazing local independent bookstore or Amazon) or specific links (to an author or distributor website) for titles. That way, if the patron sees that an item is on hold and doesn’t want to wait, or wants to buy something he or she enjoyed, they just click through. We started tracking this recently. Between October 20 and October 31, 2011, there were 653 click-throughs, about evenly split between the independent bookstore and Amazon.
  • Building this infrastructure took about a year, and we’re still tweaking it. But it works. It allows us to take what was successful under an old paradigm (the value of discount-based ownership, integration of content, and fair payment to publisher and author) and incorporate modern elements (industry standard copyright protection, full-text indexing of digital content, secure cloud-based access,) that give it immediate new life.

I have to ask, as Sanchez asked me, “Why would a publisher object to that? It’s what we’ve been doing for over 100 years!”


Now all we need are people willing and able to sell to us. So far, it hasn’t been difficult to find them. First, we approached the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. Their members produce many fine books––many of which hadn’t wound up in our libraries. This reveals the myopic focus of many libraries on just the Big Six publishers. Independents were eager to break into a new market, and intrigued by the experiment of preparing their best––EVVY award winners, in this case––for e-publication.

We learned a lot from this early partnership. Among our lessons were:

  • A lot of publishers are still trying to figure out how to produce a clean and consistent EPUB file. A lot of them had to be sold on EPUB as a format: many knew how to do PDF files (which flow poorly on e-reader devices), or the Amazon mobi format. But EPUB, we told them, was the wave of the future––an open standard.
  • A lot of new companies are springing up to help publishers produce such files.
  • We needed to set up two kinds of upload options: single and batch.
  • We need to think through cataloging workflow.
  • Amazon influences even small publisher pricing, driving it down. The Amazon price is the lowest price; if a publisher sells their title at a discount to libraries, Amazon will lower their own price to match.
  • We needed to generate a strong PR buzz for every new publisher that signed up with us. At this point, no one model has settled down or been generally adopted. If we want our model––library-owned and managed content––to win, then we have to promote it.
  • We needed to think through the terms. Was it necessary to do a complex contract with each publisher, or could we simply hold to some general principles (one person uses it at a time, we give you a link through, etc.)?

Since then, we’ve formed agreements with reference publisher Gale/Cengage. They get it. Without any kind of contract, they simply provided MARC records and files for the titles we’d already purchased. And here we made another discovery: Ownership and integration of files meant that we now had federated searching. We’ve been doing some experiments with full-text indexing and realized that it gave us the ability not only to solve some cataloging workflow problems, but to far more tightly knit together a variety of resources.

We were particularly excited to sign children’s publisher Lerner––and to add interactive children’s books to our growing collection.

We have recently signed an agreement with the Independent Publishers Group, a coalition of some seven hundred publishers. We are in discussions with many others, including some cautious but interested talks with HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. One particularly interesting discussion was with the faculty of a local University of Phoenix campus. They’d like to contribute some Creative Commons textbooks for their students.

These days, every trip to a conference involves a visit to exhibitors asking a simple question: Will you sell us your e-books? I believe, as time goes by, more of them will. And those that do will get a larger percentage of our budget.

Library as Publisher

We realized that, after installing and configuring our new system, we are now in the position of owning not just a distribution platform. We could ourselves be publishers. To that end, we’ve been talking to some local historians and film producers to investigate what other content we might gather and disseminate.

Our library has more than two million physical visitors each year, and another two million virtual visitors. All of them are looking for books, movies, and music.
There are many ways we could start a conversation with them, for example, inviting them:

  • to help us crowdsource collection development (a possible experiment where we’ll take anything, but we only keep what our community uses and ranks well);
  • to help others write better (by working as copyeditors or indexers, for instance);
  • to contribute cover art;
  • to conduct and contribute interviews of local people;
  • to attend, or deliver a workshop on writing quality works; or
  • to serve as citizen journalists, attending meetings, posting reports, and/or ranking the writing of others.

First the West, Then the Rest

For the time being, DCL will run a mixed-digital environment. That is, what our patrons want, and can only be leased, we will lease. But we will give preference to 3M over OverDrive, because 3M explicitly states that we own the titles. And we will give preference to publishers who sell to us directly over 3M because we can achieve a higher degree of integration if we possess the file. We will also begin to explore the exciting world of quality content creation.
The library belongs at the center of this revolution, not at its periphery.

DCL can’t be the only institution willing to invest some time, effort, and finances into setting up their own content management infrastructure. We need partners and colleagues to catch the eye of the marketplace.

Our first official team-up will be between DCL and the Marmot Library Network (a consortium serving much of the Western Slope of Colorado).

But this is an ideal cooperative effort for multistate regional networks, state libraries, in-state systems, or other smaller regional cooperatives.

The key features are:

  • purchasing discounts to demonstrate the value of the publicly funded buying cooperative that is the public library;
  • ownership of the file, both for preservation and to ensure the highest possible degree of integration and seamless user interface, the better to connect creators with consumers;
  • industry standard DRM for those who need it;
  • open source tools; and
  • a bold and confident engagement in the emerging revolution of content creation.

Interested? Start at vufind.org and www.adobe.com/products/contentserver. Don’t forget to check out our website.

In this time of disruption, the relationships between powers will change. Many institutions will be challenged. I think public libraries just might be the last ones standing.


  1. Julianne Pepitone, “Amazon Sales Pop as Kindle Books Overtake Paperbacks,” CNN Money, Jan. 27, 2011, accessed Jan. 20, 2012.
  2. Kristen Purcell, “E-reader Ownership Doubles in Six Months,” Pew Research Center Publications, June 27, 2011, accessed Jan. 20, 2012.
  3. Traditional Book Output Up 5%; Nontraditional Soars,” Publishers Weekly, May 18, 2011, accessed Jan. 20, 2012.
  4. Michael Kelley, “Kansas State Librarian Goes Eyeball to Eyeball with OverDrive in Contract Talks,” Library Journal, April 6, 2011, accessed Jan. 20, 2012.
  5. American Library Association, “Marketing to Libraries, ALA Library Fact Sheet 5,” accessed Jan. 20, 2012.
  6. Barbara Fister, “Publishers & Librarians: Two Cultures, One Goal,” Library Journal, May 1, 2009, accessed Jan. 20, 2012.
  7. Andrew Albanese, “Survey Says Library Users Are Your Best Customers,” Publishers Weekly, Oct. 28, 2011, accessed Jan. 20, 2012.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Joseph Sanchez, personal interview with the author.

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