Necessary Evil? Random House Triples Prices Of Library E-Books

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Random House, the world’s largest publisher of the kinds of books you and I read, has made some adjustments to the way it sells e-books to libraries. Notably, they have tripled the price of many titles. Librarians across the country are expressing their discontent.

The changes were telegraphed by an announcement a month ago that suggested prices would be going up soon, and most expected significant increases — but across the board popular genres and titles have gone up as much as 300%. Nothing is offered below $25, and some common titles are going for above $100.

As Kathy Petlewski, a librarian in Plymouth, puts it: “The first thing that popped into my mind was that Random House must really hate libraries.”

But the dismay at the major increase in prices is tempered by a sort of desperate gratefulness that the publisher is willing to play ball with libraries at all. The other big publishers have been less than generous: HarperCollins’ e-books “expire” after 26 uses, Hachette and Macmillan only make part of their list available, and others like Penguin and Simon&Schuster don’t allow library lending at all. So Random House, in a way, is the gold standard right now. They even make the library books available on the day they first go on sale.

(Incidentally, The Digital Shift has a great page describing publishers’ policies on this topic.)

And despite the obvious ugliness of charging obscene amounts for the purpose of making books available to the public, one can see that the publishers’ backs are against the wall. Any concession at all is to be, if not admired, at least understood as a difficult and possibly disastrous course of action.

These companies are faced, after all, with the prospect of selling one book and having it lent to a hundred people at once (though that is not the case here), never get stolen or damaged, be easily duplicated, and so on. In a way, the idea of having e-books “expire” or selling them at a significant markup is easily understood. They have to do something to make the new market at least partially reflect the old one. Should libraries and readers reap all the benefits of the digital revolution in publishing? They certainly don’t think so, but that doesn’t make them right.

It’s rare, however, that a technology or idea only benefits one side of the equation. With e-books, the big publishers can rid themselves of much of the overhead their business entails. They can reach more markets and deliver things faster. But to take advantage of this without conceding anything to the other side is an unrealistic hope that they have nevertheless cherished.

The libraries are the victims today, but let us not forget that the publishers are the victims every day. The difference is the libraries are the victims of the publishers, but the publishers are the victims of progress. Which is going to give up first?

Hopefully it won’t be the libraries. They are underfunded and often underutilized, but they are still an extremely valuable social service and should not be mischaracterized (as they often are in tech) as anachronisms. They will be changing form over the next decades, but the institution of the public library has existed for thousands of years, and will endure, though it may change. Big publishing houses, however, are a fairly modern invention and are perhaps more likely to become extinct.

[via The Digital Reader]