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.
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.
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