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Building a Bypass: Libraries, Amazon, and Indie Authors

by on December 8, 2015

Libraries, despite some strides toward a reasonable solution, still struggle with the cost of e-books. Regardless of the clear data showing the benefit of libraries lending an author’s work in print, publishers still hesitate to budge on e-book pricing. It’s different, they say. And in some ways they are right. But with issues of preservation, shrinking budgets, and rising costs, libraries have to be extremely careful about what books they stock both in print and in digital form.

Further complicating the issue is that many libraries don’t have their own system in place for storing and lending e-books, but rather have to depend on subscription services like Overdrive or the recently sold 3M system. Preservation issues aside this creates challenges for small press publishers, indie authors, and library staff who want to do the most good for the community as a whole.

There may be a couple of solutions from unlikely sources, and if they work, they could change the game entirely. A little competition and other paths to an e-book ownership type program might force the big publishers, or at least encourage them to cooperate. The only ones who think $90 e-books are reasonable are the number crunchers in big New York offices. The following are a few players who could help change their minds.

The big retail giant? You bet. They have some distinct advantages in the publishing game, and have even opened a physical bookstore very similar to a library in atmosphere, although without the selection or the expert advice available from library staff.

  • Amazon has already fought, and pretty much won, a battle over e-book pricing with publishers.
  • Amazon has tons of big data to advise libraries on what to carry and what will be popular in their demographic. Provided they are willing to share that data, it could lower library costs in the long run.
  • Amazon has access to titles and authors that can be the basis for an ownership type model for e-books. While they do not have ownership of every title, they could influence the industry to move that direction.

Will Amazon ever undertake such an effort as Amazon Library? It’s a good question, but there are several ways authors and Amazon itself would win if they did. They would profit from selling books to the library outright, authors would collect royalties easily, and authors could see an increase in discoverability. This increase in discoverability increases sales on Amazon, at least potentially benefitting everyone.

The library would get reasonably priced e-books, vetted and distributed by the largest book retailer in the world at the moment, and in some cases could actually own the content, and therefore be able to preserve them properly.

It seems like a win-win, but much like the rest of the industry, the game changer could be indie authors. How?

Library Journal has come up with a great program: Self-E, which vets self-published works and makes them available to libraries. The program is designed to create robust local writing communities and keep libraries at the center of the Indie author movement. For authors, the program allows them to connect to local readers, a local community, and do what every author wants: increase discoverability.

But what does it do for pricing? Indie e-books are offered to libraries at a significantly reduced cost, even though they are not as popular as those released by the Big Five. Right now, that creates a problem for libraries. Popular books get more borrows, so indie books are not “competition” for Stephen King’s latest per se, at least not to an extent they will necessarily drive prices down.

“The latest news about the decline in e-book sales for the large publishers might be more cause for them to reconsider the pricing model,” says Cheri Rendler of the Meridian Library District near Boise, Idaho.  “We went through Self-e in order to provide an additional way for Idaho Indie authors to get exposure for their work, encourage writing, and for library patrons to discover the works of local and independent authors.”

Authors and libraries must opt in to participating in Self-E, but the more of both that do, the more likely patrons and publishers alike will be to pay attention.

The brainchild of indie author Joe Konrath and his business partner August Wainwright, this idea has been in development for a while. Developing a program like eBooksareforever comes with many obstacles.

First, due to the thousands of titles published every year—many of them poorly edited and marketed–there needs to be a system in place to vet titles and make sure they are worth a librarian’s time to seek out and add to the collection. There also needs to be a simple way for libraries to acquire, preserve, and lend the books that are available.

Second, there needs to be a simple way for authors and small presses to make their books available and discoverable. They also need to get paid. Many authors voice that they would be willing to forego royalties in exchange for the discoverability. Yet not charging for e-books does not solve any of the acquisition obstacles libraries face, and most librarians are not only fans of Indie authors, but also are in favor of sustainable author careers. Not paying for content doesn’t jive with that sentiment. Creating this system in a way that benefits both authors and libraries took time. Now that the platform has launched, it becomes up to both authors and libraries to explore this option and make it viable by spreading the word and expanding the number of titles offered.

Are any of these alone a solution? Not yet, but with efforts like the Digital Public Library of America and libraries who are developing their own applications to integrate e-books into their catalog searches, the likelihood of a breakthrough in pricing at least gets a little more hopeful.

The final outcome it seems will rest on publishers once again embracing the value of libraries, and seeing the advantage to placing e-books there, much as they have with print for years. Until then, the pricing battle will continue. We can only hope new programs will make that less of an uphill struggle.

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