The Montgomery County (MD) Council passed a resolution last week that condemned the current pricing library ebook pricing policies of the Big 6/5 publisher and called on:
the Maryland General Assembly, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission “to examine this issue and seek any appropriate remedy so that county library users will have the access to materials in a reasonable and non-discriminatory manner.”
This resolution follows in the footsteps of a bill that the Governor of Conn. signed into law in June, and it reflects the growing frustration that many librarians and government officials feel over the pricing policies of Hachette, Macmillan, S&S, HarperCollins, and Random Penguin Solutions.
Hachette and Random House, for example, sell ebooks at extortionate prices while Penguin and HarperCollins sell ebooks under a license which expires in one year. (I don’t yet know what the pricing policies of Random Penguin Solutions will be). Macmillan only sells a small fraction of their back list to libraries, and Simon & Schuster is currently only supporting a pilot program for the 3 library systems in NYC (also with an expiring license).
The library ebook situation is so bad that in May the Douglas County Libraries comparison list found that only 12 of the USA Today best-seller list were available as library ebooks. And to make matters worse 9 of those 12 titles were listed at a significantly higher price than what a consumer would pay (up to 5 times higher).
Naturally there are quite a few librarians who are not happy about the issue.
The story about the Montgomery County resolution looks at first glance to fit the archetype in the classic tale of mice voting to bell a cat, but I think there is more to it than that. The thing about mice voting to bell the cat is that if enough mice got together then they might actually be able to pull it off.
What if this is not just an isolated incident but is instead the beginning of a trend?
If the pressure continues to grow then we could see states deciding to regulate the library ebook market and force the Big 5/6 publishers to deal with libraries on pricing and availability terms similar to the ones that paper books are sold under. And as soon as one state passed this kind of regulation, you can bet that more will follow.
I usually don’t like new govt regulation but in this case I’m torn. There is a clear public good which would be gained from the government forcing the issue, and it’s also clear that letting the free market sort itself out simply isn’t working.
Frankly, the major publishers are doing their best to avoid selling ebooks to libraries. Given how libraries positively affect the community I find their actions to be unconscionable.
image by SLU Madrid Campus