When Penguin announced last week that it was disabling library e-book lending on the Kindle and pulling its latest e-book titles from all library lending platforms, libraries and readers took the hit, but to some observers they were collateral damage in a fight between publishers and Amazon about the control of publishers’ titles.
A day after its abrupt announcement, in which the publisher cited vague new “copyright security” concerns, Penguin officials modified their position, agreeing to restore some older titles to its Kindle lending program through the end of the year. Librarians, however, remained sharply critical of the move.
“If Penguin has an issue with Amazon, we ask that they deal with Amazon directly and not hold libraries hostage to a conflict of business models,” read a statement from ALA. “The issue for library patrons is a loss of access to books, period. Once again, readers are the losers.”
Indeed, Penguin’s move suggests that the publishing industry’s long-simmering concern over Amazon’s dominant position and its aggressive new ventures in the e-book market are coming to a boil. A number of publishers, agents, and authors have been uneasy from the beginning over the Kindle/OverDrive library lending program. And though the program launched in September, its popularity has stoked fears that Kindle library lending could cut into e-book sales.
In a comment posted to PW’s Web site, Trident chairman Robert Gottlieb said he was most uncomfortable with the Kindle/OverDrive program because, even though the lending is managed by OverDrive, library patrons are directed to Amazon to get their borrowed book. “Libraries and those that serve them should not be redirecting readers under any circumstances unless it is to another nonprofit entity,” he wrote. “Publishers are happy to have libraries lend books, but not to retailers to use for their own benefit.” With reading now just a click away, he noted, “The game has changed.”
But, librarians note, it is publishers that have changed the game. Unlike print books, which libraries own, e-books are licensed and access is managed, an expansion of power for publishers. Where a publisher would never be permitted to pull its physical books off a library shelf, or limit lends, publishers in the e-book world can now decide whether to allow access to an e-book at all, how to do it, and under what terms. “Loaning e-books is like playing with some other kid’s ball on the playground,” explained Christopher Harris on the ALA blog. “There is always a risk that the other kid will take back his or her ball and go home. This is a game libraries have to play.” Harris added, “I just wish we could bring our own ball.”
Penguin’s move brought to an abrupt halt any progress that may have been made between the major trade houses and libraries about libraries lending e-books. Indeed, the Penguin controversy could very well reinforce the feeling among the major houses that it is better to wait on the sidelines to see how some of the issues shake out before getting deeply involved with e-book lending, and it is difficult to see holdouts Simon & Schuster or Macmillan changing their minds soon about entering the OverDrive lending program.
With Penguin pulling its new titles from OverDrive, the only Big Six house to offer all its titles through OverDrive is Random House. While no change has been announced, Random said it is “actively reviewing” its policy.