Publishers Pay for Books, Too

Recently the Indianapolis newspaper published an op-ed by a journalist who wrote that the reason publishers put restrictions on ebooks sold to libraries is because we don’t want people to check out ebooks, a policy based on greed. I was grateful that the IndyStar allowed me to submit a response to the accusations, which I would like to share.

When I started my first job in children’s book publishing, Amazon was a brand-new company, and ebooks did not exist. While publishers made less money on library sales, the system was fair. If a book was brought into the collection and not checked out, then it would not be reordered and was eventually taken off the shelves. If it was a bestselling author or title, more copies would be purchased on release, and if it continued to be checked out, the paper copy would deteriorate and be replaced. In that way, publishers benefited from the more popular titles and very little on the titles that did not gain readers. Library patrons had to travel to the library to check out a book. That is the “friction” the Macmillan CEO wrote about in a recent letter to librarians.

Book sales are now split between paper and digital, and there have been adjustments in many areas. In acknowledgment of the removal of printing costs for ebooks, we price them lower and pay higher royalties to the authors. Libraries now offer ebooks online, with the potential to have unlimited readers for any one copy. Because ebooks have no “friction,” publishers have created restrictions on the number of readers who can access each ebook purchased. Would it be fair for an author to receive royalties for a sale of one book that was read by 50 or 500 people? We need a system that provides payment in relationship to the number of readers. We need sales to continue publishing new titles.

Whether a book is digital or paper, its creation involves many professionals who want to be paid. Authors want to be paid. So do the multiple editors. So do designers. So do sales people. So do the marketing staff, and so do the publicity staff who try to get book reviews in a world where the number of magazines and newspapers that still publish book reviews are a fraction of what they once were. Newspapers and magazines have had similar challenges in a digital world where so much content is free.
Because of the rise in online sales, we have to market to the general public as well as booksellers and librarians. The costs of publishing are higher, though book prices have leveled out, and any new title must compete with an increasing number of titles published each year, all on top of the fact that publishers are trying to pay the publishing costs from a small percentage of the retail price, particularly with ebooks. With all the additional services that libraries are trying to provide the public, I’m sure they, too, feel that they are trying to do more with less.

Publishers must consider the financial side of our business, but we, too, want the public to have access to books. Publishers donate thousands of books each year to nonprofits like First Book. Tanglewood donated 1400 new books last summer for an Indianapolis Library Foundation event. Publishers and librarians actually share the same vision: to provide quality content that enriches lives. With continued and open conversations, hopefully we can find a system that meets the needs of everyone.