Librarians fight to keep publishers from taking over e-book revolution

Posted Friday, Apr. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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History portal honored

The Portal to Texas History has received the Wayne Williams Library Project of the Year Award from the Texas Library Association which is holding its 100th annual conference this week in Fort Worth.

The $500 award recognizes a project with high levels of achievement, professional standards.

The portal, administered by the University of North Texas Libraries, was created in 2002 by the UNT Libraries' Digital Products Unit. It provides online access to books, photographs, artifacts, maps, newspapers and other historic materials from more than 200 archives, historical societies, libraries, museums and private collections from across Texas.

-- Steve Campbell

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FORT WORTH -- There's a tightrope across the digital divide that nearly 7,000 librarians meeting this week in Fort Worth are crossing, but some aren't tiptoeing. They're leaping across the gap and looking for ways to stay at the forefront of a new age in reading.

Electronic books and digital devices have altered the reading landscape but for the most part America's six largest publishing houses have tried to keep libraries on the sidelines of the reformation.

Big publishers have limited releases of digital titles to libraries, charged them much more for e-books than printed ones and restricted the number of times that digital books can be checked out before forcing libraries to buy another copy.

Some librarians aren't willing to let publishers control the revolution.

They are looking to compete by forming their own publishing arms to capitalize on new content streams that have blossomed alongside the e-book tsunami, said Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas County Library system in Colorado and one of the speakers today at the 100th annual meeting of the Texas Library Association being held at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

"I'm kind of wandering around as an evangelist saying we have two choices: Either we can be marginalized by people trying to lock us out of the market or we can say we don't want to hang out on the fringe of the revolution, we want to be at the heart of it," said LaRue, whose library is the first in the nation to create its own e-book management system.

"I think the real trend is the rise of libraries as publishers," he said "Look at it like this, there are more public libraries in the United States than there are McDonalds. We have a nationwide distribution system."

Digital disconnect

The disconnect with large publishers is a huge issue for libraries, said Gloria Meraz, director of communications for the Texas Library Association which is hosting nearly 7,000 librarians and 400 vendors at its annual conference. The nonprofit association was formed in 1902 to promote library service in Texas.

"Many people don't understand that libraries are really trying to cross the digital divide. We do have online services and it's a segment that is growing rapidly. Texas is trying to figure out a good distribution model for e-books," Meraz said.

The rise of e-books has altered the library landscape, said Sherilyn Bird, president of the TLA.

"It's very interesting to me that even though our print circulation is strong and steady, it's our electronic circulation that is growing at a phenomenal rate," she said. "We hope we can come up with a business model that works for publishers and for us. We're trying to get them to understand that libraries help create markets for books."

The two new streams of previously untapped content -- independent publishers and self-publishing -- represent "the biggest explosion of writing in the history of mankind," and a juicy opportunity for libraries, LaRue said.

"These independent publishers are eager to sell to libraries. They've realized that the problem for the 21st century is how do you get noticed," he said. "It's the same deal with self-publishing. Five years ago, there were 10,000 to 15,000 titles. Well now, there's almost 300,000. People say that's vanity press, low-quality stuff, but four of the current 25 New York Times bestsellers are self-published and 16 out of the last 100."

A group of 268 libraries in California have adopted the Douglas library's model and two consortiums in Texas are interested in the model, he said.

"Texas is one of the first states in the Union to grasp what we are doing," LaRue said.

E-book avalanche

At the Fort Worth Library, e-book usage has skyrocketed with digital circulation increasing by 50 percent in 2010, 116 percent in 2011 and 82 percent in 2012 when 146,002 titles were checked out.

That mark will be eclipsed in 2013 with the library's collection of 46,449 e-books borrowed 85,846 times in the first quarter of the year.

"The big issue for us is the reluctance of the publishers to sell us the digital objects as readily as they do the bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Nobles," said Adam Wright, assistant director of public services for the Fort Worth library.

"That reluctance really deals with the bottom line. They see us as a threat to their profit when in reality, because we are enhancing the reading culture in America, we are really helping their bottom line," he said.

Most of the big publishers limit borrowing on their titles from anywhere to 24 to 26 checkouts, Wright said, noting that a popular new hardback book can get checked out more than 100 times over a couple of years.

Digital book pricing is another obstacle.

"Some of the publishers charge us as much as 300 percent more for the e-books," he said.

"The biggest hurdle for us is getting people to know that we have e-books at all. A majority of people I talk to who are casual library users don't realize we have e-books," Wright said.

Digital demand has been even higher at the Harris County Public Library, where the collection of 38,397 e-items had a circulation of 637,015 in the last year, said Linda Stevens, coordinator of marketing. The system with more than 1.1 million card holders had a total circulation of over 10 million items.

From 2006-2013, the Harris library's number of e-book users rose 1,176 percent and checkouts have soared by 4,237 percent.

With some big publishers excluding libraries, the Harris library started looking at alternatives such as the Douglas County system and reaching out to independent publishers and authors who also felt left out, said director Rhoda Goldberg,

"We just can't wait for the publishers to figure out what to do. It will be worked out eventually. We just want to stay in front of it for now," she said.

The library is doing what it always has done, working with authors, Goldberg said.

"We give them a platform, we market it for them, and we advertise it for them. This is what these newer authors want from us," she said.

The Harris library considers its website an e-branch, Stevens said.

"Our readers want more. It blows their mind when they find out publishers won't sell to us.

"That's why we're working with self-published authors and buying directly from them," she said.

LaRue said the Douglas library has purchased 12,000 titles from independents and over 10,000 self-published items.

"Last week, we released our first book, a local history. We are right at the beginning of the revolution. This is a library produced book and it's free to the world."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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