Local Food (for Thought) Movement

LJ Academic Newswire reports that U Penn is the latest to offer scan-on-demand with quality print output. Emory uses the same Kirtas machine to offer a curated collection of books relevant to Emory and to the South, unique in their collections. UMich, which has a rich collection of books scanned through their own efforts and with the Google project, has an Espresso machine standing by reading to instantly print copies. Cornell sells thousands of scanned books printed on demand through Amazon’s POD company.

And Boston Public, in a partnership with the Open Library that seems to have gotten far too little press, will digitize a public domain book of your choice within a matter of days, letting demand drive mass digitization. All you have to do is press a button in their catalog. How cool is that?

It’s interesting how these efforts are described. “An ATM for books.” “Library as Bookstore.” “Library as publisher.” “Amazon partnership.” We’re not quite sure what to call this effort – which is making public domain books available in multiple formats to as many people as possible while recovering costs. Basically, it’s interlibrary loan of non-returnables that happen to be book-sized and often go direct to the patron. It’s a terrific development. But . . . you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?

By now some of you will have twigged to the fact that partnering with Amazon – particularly for POD fulfillment – is going on my “hey, wait a minute” list. Amazon is a hugely successful company that is able to set terms because it is so big. Their strategy is vertical integration and ownership of every piece of the industry that can be integrated. The only POD company they support is the one they own. The only e-book format they will sell is the one they bought – MobiPocket (which also fuels Kindle). They are the Microsoft of books. Don’t like the way we do things? Tough, ’cause we’re the biggest. You go through us, you get the audience, but you play by our rules.

The more we partner with Amazon, the bigger it gets and the harder it is for local independent bookstores to survive. It’s the same Faustian bargain libraries stuck with Google to digitize books, but it’s harder to argue it’s totally win-win. Independent booksellers lose. That’s a choice we make.

I suggested an even more radical partnership partnership in Library Journal last year, but so far no takers. I’m not really surprised, since it would require regional library consortia having a new-generation machine and expanding delivery of print-on-demand books to local booksellers. But a partnership of publishers, regional library systems, and the local book trade could lead to a greener, more reader-driven supply of books to borrow or buy – and a healthier local community.

I recently caught a blog posting from a bookseller who said of hard times “it’s Mardi Gras over there at the library!” We’ve all seen the news stories about the surge in library use. We have the mojo to refresh a broken book culture using new technologies and new ideas, but before we fashion ourselves as publishers, we should think about what that means to our communities near by.

I know a lot of indie booksellers, and they are dedicated to connecting people to books because they believe that connection matters. They aren’t getting rich. They aren’t trying to boost their profit margin. They’re just trying to pay the rent and stay open. My own campus bookstore is one of the few that isn’t outsourced. It’s an independent bookstore, and I’m proud of that.

If we’re going to become part of the book business, let’s think about how to do it in a way that doesn’t screw over our local partners in connecting books and readers.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

7 thoughts on “Local Food (for Thought) Movement

  1. I think it’s still up in the air how the long tail will wag the dog, and whether really huge companies like Amazon are designed to benefit from from the long tail more than local and independent ventures. And then there’s the very interesting claim that Anita Elberse has made recently that the digital era actually favors the blockbuster. I’m just thinking that libraries should be conscious of the choices they make so that they aren’t partnering with big business at the expense of local and small enterprises.

  2. I have very mixed emotions about the print-on-demand movement.

    On the one hand, POD services offer a reasonable cost option for small authors who can’t attract a regular publisher, without requiring them to order an initial print run of several thousand books. I have an uncle who is researching and writing about our family ancestry, and my father is writing a collection of his memoirs. These books that are unlikely to be of interest outside our family and maybe a small circle of friends. Amazon’s POD service offers them an option to “publishing” on CD-ROM – allowing them to create something that can become a nice keepsake in the family library.

    On the other hand, you raise an excellent point about the impact (particularly when libraries enter into the sort of partnerships you describe) on local independent booksellers, which are really hurting as a result of megachains like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. We lost the best independent bookstore in my community several years ago, and longtime locals still miss it. Now we seem to be limited to Borders, B&N, and a couple of small specialty bookstores – with the latter usually combined with coffee shops in order to stay in business. It’s a real loss for the community.

    I have no good solution for this problem, but I think you are correct in cautioning libraries to think about the impact of such arrangements on their local booksellers. I’m not sure how much of a revenue stream POD arrangements with publishers like Amazon provide to libraries (and I’ve never known a public library that couldn’t use a little extra money, since libraries seem to be a favorite target when cities have to cut their budgets), but you’ve certainly provided some excellent food for thought.

  3. One point of information (in response to Jane Doe): POD services are employed by many publishers, large and small, as a way to avoid the problem of over-printing. POD can refer to a rather small print run (25-100) created as orders accumulate.

    For university presses, cost-effective POD services have been a major boon in the past 5 years or so. Rather than playing a guessing game (print 1000, sell 600, pulp or remainder the rest), we can now print for the short term (first year or so) and then reprint in small amounts as needed. This saves paper and money (given fewer inventory items to manage.)

    These books may very well be sold through conventional book stores. Many publishers use LightningSource as well as Amazon’s supplier for POD. LS is part of Ingram, a book wholesaler from whom many small bookshops order their stock. These close relationships (between Amazon and their POD vendor, BookSurge, or between Ingram and LS) show how businesses evolve to control the vertical production chain. This is capitalism at work, for good or ill, or a combination of both.

    On Barbara’s larger point, there are also several businesses springing up that could potentially support library book sales — Lulu or Blurb, who were founded to enable self-publishing, but who support online sales and distribution of print books. I suspect they’d be happy to start conversations with libraries about how they could collaborate on efforts similar to what Penn and Emory are doing with Amazon. (The book-scanning piece would have to be addressed separately.) Another solution in place at the U of Michigan is an Espresso Book Machine, for the truly one-off print on demand copy–it takes about 10 minutes to make a reasonably well-bound conventional paperback book. I believe that Lightning Source titles (that is, books whose publishers use LS for their POD) can be purchased on an Espresso. http://www.ondemandbooks.com

    I envision a day when a lot of libraries and college bookstores share an Espresso. The library could use it to sell copies of scanned items from their collection, content from their Institutional Repository, or other library-published items (say, journals or conference proceedings from that university). The bookstore could use it for books that have been assigned to their students. Ideally, publishers would even offer chapters or articles for sale in this way, so coursepacks could be made for students who preferred print. (In my fantasy, all of this is done at a reasonable price, that covers the cost of providing this custom-made printed copy.)

    Currently Amazon certainly makes it very easy and appealing to find, explore, and buy POD copies. As early investors in this area, they have great advantages. But we are not limited to them.

  4. I was a leader in the negotiations with Kirtas to arrange for the scan-on-demand program at the Penn Libraries. Through Kirtas, our scanned books will be offered through amazon, B&N, bookstores, the Kindle, the SONY Reader, and the Stanza Reader for iPhone.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about amazon.com dominating the book market. The Google Book Settlement will bring a new and enormous player into the arena. But in addition to this, the little “David,” the Espresso Book Machine, will perhaps have an even bigger impact.

    See my new article on “Micro-Publishing” at: http://musingsofcorsonf.blogspot.com/2009/03/micro-publishing.html

  5. It’s exciting to see what Monica and Adam are envisioning. So far, the “build your own anthology/textbook” options offered by big publishers aren’t lowering costs much – partly because the permissions can be steep, partly because they’re still for-profit and have high overheads – but I love the idea of being able to create small runs of locally important stuff like conference proceedings or anthologies of student work for a course. I’m also interested to hear that one could print lighting source titles locally. That would be immensely convenient for a local bookstore and for collection development. Why ILL that book if it’s one the library wants to add to the collection – and can get today?

    Thanks for adding your perspectives. I think there’s a lot of good possibilities – but the idea of watching Amazon and Google duke it out like Godzilla and King Kong, trampling small publishing underfoot as they thrash around, isn’t my idea of a good time ;-)

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