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Monday, June 27, 2011

Back from ALA - the death of commercial publishing

On June 25, I was one of the panelists speaking at "The Future is Now! e-books and their increasing impact on library services." I made one deliberately provocative statement that woke up some people. I mentioned that my book, which retails for $40, earns me $4 with each sale. 10% is pretty good for a first time author. But somebody publishing an ebook on Amazon can sell it for $10, and make $7. I said, "The bullet has passed through the brain of commercial publishing. Now we're just waiting for the body to fall."

My point here is that the economic model of commercial publishing isn't so attractive anymore. The numbers show it.

I only had 12 minutes for my part of the panel, so as you can imagine, I have lots more to say about all this. Obviously, commercial publishing is still around. Patrons still ask for traditional content. Libraries have to find ways to get it. My library is working with Overdrive, 3M, and others.

My premise is that ebook and self-publishing together represent an explosion in the quantity of writing, and librarians don't know much about it. It's easy to dismiss it all as bad. Much of it may be. Much of commercial publishing isn't so hot, either.

But if the job of public libraries is to gather, organize, and present the intellectual content of our culture to the community, we'd better get busy. We need to look into it, find ways to sample and deliver it, figure out what it means. Maybe even take part in it, help our communities make rich, compelling, and high quality contributions to it. Become publishers ourselves.

And in a time when a lot of publishers are suddenly refusing to sell this content to us at all, I think it's important to remind them that they aren't the only game in town. They are not even where the action is. Many independent publishers and writers are EAGER to sell to libraries.

Librarians can whine about how corporations are unilaterally redefining the whole system of public access to content. It's true, too. Or, we can do something more than react to a market. We can help define one that is far more interesting and modern. Guess which one sounds like more fun?

Incidentally, our own library's attempt to grow a new information infrastructure that seamlessly integrates print and digital media, through one unified catalog, instead of a series of vendor silos, is pretty neat. But I was blown away by Brewster Kahle talking about the enormous scale and success of the Internet Archive.

My message to the ALA audience was to start some experiments with the managing of content, instead of passively waiting for vendors to tell us what they'll allow us to do. But Kahle is doing it internationally, with all kinds of media, and his message was even more powerful. Go to publishers and tell them this: we want to buy your ebooks. Will you sell them to us?

Obviously, I think our messages go together pretty well. And it was a pleasure to meet the good people involved with that effort.


waltc said...

While I'm generally down on "death of" pronouncements, I like much of what you're saying here. You might want to know that I'm finishing up a book for Information Today, Inc., a book that will specifically help libraries work with their patrons to publish the very specific and narrow stories--family histories, reminiscences, very niche works--that can't be done well now. (Would you be interested in reading a draft and possibly writing a blurb?)

Jamie said...

Hey Walt. Sure!

nchslibrary said...

Jamie, That panel was amazing, and I was particularly impressed with your segment. I've been listening to lots of "commercial (digital) publishing is the death of libraries" messages lately, and it was refreshing to hear you turn that around. I assume you've heard Eli Neiburger's "Libraries are Screwed" talk. It's on his blog, It's a great talk, and he raises some excellent points that, in many ways, echo some of what you said.

Jamie said...

Thanks. Yes, Eli is sharp. It seems so clear to me that we have the opportunity to demonstrate extraordinary value -- to authors, to publishers, to readers, to our society. Instead, there seems to be a lot of passivity in our profession right now. Let's not wait for the vendors to save us. Instead, as Walt is showing, let's be a force for the creation of content in our communities.