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Libraries Continue to Battle for Fair Access to Ebooks
Posted On July 1, 2014
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Amazon has also been pressuring Hachette Book Group to provide major concessions to Amazon as a part of contract negotiations for selling Hachette titles through the online retail giant. Book buyers noticed that, suddenly, Hachette books were being offered at higher prices than other trade press titles, were not in stock (causing a delay in delivery), and no longer included preorder buttons on Amazon’s website. Although the nature of the apparent impasse in negotiations is secret, on June 20 The New York Times reported a source’s claim that “Amazon has been demanding payments for a range of services, including the pre-order button, personalized recommendations and a dedicated employee at Amazon for Hachette books. This is similar to so-called co-op arrangements with traditional retailers, like paying Barnes & Noble for placing a book in the front of the store.”

Amazon is well-known for its strong-arm negotiating strategies. In 2010, those strategies led the retail giant to remove Buy buttons for new releases from Macmillan Publishers from its website in an effort to pressure pricing deals. With Apple about to launch iBooks, Amazon was seeking considerations from publishers to maintain its market position. Instead of complying, publishers found Apple to be a more workable partner. A collaborative effort created an agency model that would allow publishers—not retail giants—to set prices. This famously led to the Apple/publisher federal case for price fixing in 2012. In the end, the publishers settled, and, although Apple settled recently, the company continues to hope for relief by appealing the case.

USA TODAY notes that Amazon “is the most powerful force in the book market, believed to have a share of more than 60 percent of e-book sales and at least a third of book sales overall. Rivals have struggled to compete with Amazon’s discounts and customer service.” Some see Amazon’s slim profits over the past few years as the impetus for its current troubles because the company keeps price margins razor thin to stave off competitors. In any case, these issues continue to thwart innovation and cause the industry to stagnate.

Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author, began a campaign to have “I didn’t buy it on Amazon” stickers placed on books sold through other venues. The campaign received support from the American Booksellers Association. Bustle’s Emma Cueto writes, “While it’s certainly understandable that a company like Amazon would want to find new sources of revenue given their narrow to non-existent profit margins (despite doing billions of dollars in sales, some years the company actually loses money), it’s still a stretch for a retailer to expect their suppliers to pay them for, essentially, doing their job.”

Growth in Popularity Is Slowed by the Book Industry’s Fear of Change

BookStats is about to release its 2014 statistics. Although unavailable at press time, the 2014 study is expected to find continuing growth for ebooks and solid advances in book publishing in general. Available for the last 2 years, this year’s joint Association of American Publishers (AAP) and BISG (Book Industry Study Group) project will be the last from this partnership because of an announced pull-out by BISG. No details on the future of BookStats have been released. The report will most likely show growth in the marketplace across the globe and across market segments. However, major publishers continue to face pressures from e-retailers, libraries seeking parity, and mostly from themselves and their own deepest fears of obsolescence.

John Green, author of the hit book The Fault in Our Stars, which is not a Hachette title, commented, “What’s ultimately at stake is whether Amazon is going to be able to freely and permanently bully publishers into eventual nonexistence. … The breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”

“As traditional publishers consolidate they become more risk-averse,” Laura Dawson, Bowker Identifier Services’ product manager, explained at a recent NISO (National Information Standards Organization) webinar titled Fragmented Publishing: The Implications of Self-Publishing. “This is a trend that has been true in publishing since I began in this field in 1986. Gulf + Western acquired Simon & Schuster and Bertelsmann acquired Bantam, Dell, and Doubleday. All these houses began to focus on celebrity works, diet books, and other ‘sure hits.’ These trends create fewer opportunities for authors in these channels and, as a result over time, more self-published titles. Instead of submitting a manuscript to a publisher, they are making their own investments and taking their own risks, hoping it will pay off in the long run.”

Dawson continued, “Bowker’s Books in Print (BIP) now includes 28 million titles, … which consist of the majority of ISBNs included in BIP. … You have millions of titles coming from publishing houses, large and small, and then hundreds of thousands (we have counted about 400,000 in BIP) of self-published titles. And this only includes those with ISBNs—and we know that many ebook vendors don’t require an ISBN, so these are just the ones we know about. As an industry, we need to concentrate on the incredible abundance of content—28 million titles that we know about—and that also doesn’t include other types of content—TV, movies, articles, websites, radio, filmed content—all of which is also vying for an audience today. As an industry, we have to focus on what this means for us as an industry and as a culture.” In the meantime, libraries can do little but wait and work out the best available options for their communities.

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Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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