I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ebooks and digital content, and about what libraries have to do to get publishers and other content providers to work with us and play nice. I’ve been trying to think of what we can offer them in exchange for favorable terms on digital content, and my mind has largely been moving in the marketing, increased sales, statistical data direction. But this evening I remembered something else that effects everything we are and might be doing with publishers.
See, publishers have to sell things. They have to make money off of their content in any way they can, and preferably as much of it as possible. They would charge us to re-read the paperbacks sitting on our own bookshelves at home if they could, and this isn’t because they are greedy, evil bastards. This is because they are for profit organizations, and it is the law that they make as much money as they can for their shareholders. That is their whole raison d’etre, as for profit companies. Even if they wanted to give us content, even if they wanted to cut us great deals and be generous and think of the children and the future and the preservation of our intellectual culture, well, they can’t. Because legally, they have to make money, above and beyond every other consideration.
This is why Panera Bread needed to start a separate foundation in order to operate its Panera Cares Community Cafes, where they charge only what customers can afford in order to serve the hungry. They needed to be able to operate as a non-profit in order to absorb losses, and to operate in a way that is about more than the bottom line.
So what does that have to do with libraries? I think there are people in the publishing world who could be convinced to start up non-profit foundations to work with libraries to provide digital content. I think this would be a great public relations move for them. I think a lot of publishers DO care about preserving our cultural record and the children and the future. And I think there are library non-profits, like Library Renewal, that can make it part of their organizational missions to help publishers move into this realm, and help publishers reap the PR benefits from it, as well. Individual libraries might not be able to partner with publishers in the non-profit foundation world, but library organizations can.
There are probably many more things libraries can do to provide value to publishers, to convince us there is a profitable reason to work with us, and to continue to provide us digital content on terms we can afford and are willing to accept. But we have to understand, too, that under their current for profit statuses, publishers are not only not going to volunteer to work out favorable terms with us, they may not actually be able to. It isn’t their business to provide content equally to all citizens, it’s their job to make money from citizens. Maybe we can help them figure out ways around that.