Tim Coates’ speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Tim Coates

Frankfurt Book Fair    10 Oct 2012


Ebooks, Publishers and Public Libraries


Every week we read in the publishing trade press and in the newspapers of arguments between senior publishers and the administrators of the public library service about the supply of ebooks to libraries.  The language is fierce, the problems appear unsolvable and the progress is very slow.   But such arguments and such news stories cannot make sense to the public who believe and assume that both publishers and librarians hold the joint responsibility of providing a library service and for producing the books they want to read. Authors create the books –  publishers and librarians are the enablers who give a service.

In this room we, who work in the industry, know of the importance of publishing and the wonderful things it creates as a media industry.

And we know and understand better than anyone why public libraries are so important.

In the UK we are forever seeing Government studies being conducted to find out whether libraries are still relevant, in a way that makes one suspicious of their motives, but I can explain to them in two minutes.

As Shakespeare would have had it – we use libraries in all the ages of our life – a small child enjoys stories; a schoolgirl discovers the author no teacher ever revealed; a student learns; in middle age we find the solace of reading and as we grow older and more alone we find the sheer pleasure of time to read what one has not done during working life.

As publishers we know the difference between someone who reads and someone who does not – the simple cultural quality of a life that is enhanced and civil.

And yet – at a time when none of this should be risked – we are truly, dangerously, fearfully, placing at imminent risk the entire public library service.

The cause is that the publisher will not allow the arrival of the technology of ebooks in public libraries.

The solutions when they emerge appear to be even more costly distribution platforms and systems and more expensive ebooks.

Nothing could be more ludicrous – for this is the technology that makes the whole idea of a public library become infinitely more practical than it has ever been.

The whole point of the ebook technology is that the world distribution and replication costs are nil.

Moreover the evidence is already to be seen that the ebooks that are most being used are precisely those that are most often issued from libraries –  it is the simple fiction, the crime novels, the romance that are the daily diet of library patrons that are the books that are most used in ebook form.

If we deny libraries access to these, we will make them redundant very fast.

We will actually close the libraries down by removing the oxygen from their lungs – but if we close the libraries by doing this – it is not hard to predict and believe that in only a few years, maybe a decade, we will have reduced the publishing market to a fraction of what it is now.  We will destroy a large part of reading and with it, publishing… more than half reading now takes place with books from libraries – and most publishers often don’t realise that.

Removal of books from libraries is the opposite of what should be happening.

Ebook technology offers wonderful opportunities.  Having removed the printing and distribution costs, we have made the whole cannon of literature through ebooks instantly and more cheaply accessible to people anywhere in the world.  They can be read internationally without effort.  They are available now to people with poor eyesight, sight impairment or with dyslexia.  Large print, braille and audio – for teaching purposes at least – are instantly and freely available through ebooks.

This is not the moment to be restricting their use in libraries.  The connection from author to reader – the industry in which we all participate – now has possibilities that never existed.  This is not the time to flounder and fail.  This is not the time to give up on a generation and, because of our internal disputes, allow them to turn to film and the social media for their understanding of literature and culture.

The problem is serious and it runs very deep.  There is a fundamental crisis in the book industry.  In my view it has been festering for thirty or forty years – and that is the gravity and size of what has to be solved.  What happened was that, with the advent of computer systems – the publishing and the library worlds became two separate endeavours.   Instead of books being the link that joined the two – computer systems and then the vendor supply chains that came with them – have built an enormous concrete wall that divides them.  Instead of providing sensible economic models of routes from author to reader we have created vast Integrated Library Management, Information, Distribution and Cataloging Systems that take up all the money and divide publishing from librarianship.

Despite the well intentioned assurances of the trade associations, publishers do not any longer have any meaningful working relationship with the library service.

The public reader would be astonished to know that libraries and publishers have completely different ways of describing and categorizing books – that the barcodes printed on books since forty years ago are not use by libraries – which have their own multitude of bar code arrangements. Readers  and authors would be amazed to know that publishers have no idea which books are circulated by public libraries – or that publishers, mainly, have no way of knowing whether or not libraries carry the books they publish or whether or not they are being read.

Readers and authors would, I believe, be astonished to visit an ALA convention hall and see that instead of exhibits by the major publishers, the halls are in fact full of teams of computer vendors whose cultural contribution lies in commerce and corporation and not in knowledge or literature.  These vendors take an excessively large part of the money that should be being spent on books – and these conventions demonstrate that clearly there are large amounts of money in the library industry.

The activity that joins publishers and librarians together and to the public – which is reading – appears to be lost to both of them … everybody in the industry deserves a fair wage – but for helping people to find the books they want not for spending it on computers, Integrated Systems, and jobbing distributors who cater for the variations of service required by libraries.

In my country it cannot make sense to be closing libraries and removing books and still spending vast amounts on warehouses and systems in every individual 150 local councils – which is what we do.  We are hollowing the service to its destruction.

So I contend that the problem we call the ebook crisis is not just about ebooks.  It is about the separation of the industry.  And the solution to it is not just about fair distribution of money for reading ebooks – which is essential – but about dismantling the appalling walls that have been constructed between publishers and public librarians.  We have to learn to see ourselves as one industry and not two different ones.

We have to see our joint purpose in the promotion of reading in our own countries and around the world – and out of that we will all earn our living – our purpose is to promote what authors and publishers do and not to strangle it.

We have to see the solution to the ebook problem as being an answer to the question, ‘How do we, together, make the advantages of this technology available to everyone in the world?’

I believe, after my own long years in the industry, that both publishers and public librarians have to look for radical change – and be keen and eager to embrace it together – in a way and on a scale that at present they just have not contemplated.   They need to take two large steps back from where they are and think again.

In a practical sense they have to dismantle the current supply chains for both goods and information and replace them quickly with arrangements as innovative and competent as those which the online book retailers have shown they can create.

We have to have new communication so that publishers and libraries communicate day to day effectively about what is happening in the reading and learning markets – both with each other internally – and with the public externally, so that the public hear one voice from one industry in the way that is customary and normal with book retailers.

How do we do this?  Well, I believe there needs to be one joint urgent initiative in the United States (where the current battle is raging and from which a peace needs to be found) which is adopted internationally and willingly.

The responsibility is to a generation who will find e-reading on smart phones and as yet unseen devices to be perfectly normal part of their life and of their own education.

If we don’t do it, the world will be less civilised and a lot of people will lose their living – it’s as simple and as important as that. We must start now.

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