Outrage is Not Adaptive
So, another warning shot has been fired in these early days of the Information Revolution. Of course it’s outrageous. The disenfranchised are often outraged when they’re reminded of their disenfranchisement. So what can we do about it as an industry? Well, the first thing to consider is to not be outraged. What did we expect would happen? We’re not at the tables where these things are discussed. The rightsholders hold all the cards. The intermediaries are completely dependent on the rightsholders to have a business. The rightsholders know they have leverage, and they want to maximize the revenue stream their assets can produce by setting contract terms. They call this practice “business.” To consider this behavior outrageous, and express outrage when it happens, does not help libraries to adapt to market conditions far beyond our control, or position libraries as valuable partners to rightsholders. Libraries need to adapt to these conditions and find new value propositions, and that’s pretty hard when the guy holding all the cards thinks we’re a bunch of credulous, irrational n00bs who peek at the hand we were dealt and immediately storm off in a huff.
There’s lots of talk of boycotts, and voting with our dollars, and trying to explain it to our patrons, in hopes that the businesspeople will see how hurt we are, and how angry everybody is, and find some other way. But that’s not business. The reality, as beautifully explained in this excellent post by Sarah Glassmeyer, is that if you do the math, you’ll find that even if libraries boycotted ALL publishers, and each library patron wound up buying just 1 book or ebook per year as a result, that the publishing industry would come out significantly ahead. That leverage thing? Yeah. We don’t have any. Publishers only stand to gain more revenue by restricting library use of their materials. That’s not outrageous, it’s just business, and as the internet’s relentless downward price pressure continues to put the squeeze on big publishers over the next several years, the things rightsholders can control (like licensing terms) are only going to change more, in ways that will likely make us nostalgic for the current frissom.
Sure, we can be outraged. But that’s not going to help anybody, and it does not help our institutions, or our partners, to adapt to changing market conditions. If we want to continue to have access to commercial content, we need to go to the table and make deals with publishers, creators, and rightsholders who will work with us. This may ultimately mean that the days of the bestseller or blockbuster at the library at launch are numbered. But Libraries were here before there were bestsellers, and hopefully, we’ll be here after there are no more bestsellers… or when the bestsellers don’t even have publishers.
So what can we do, if not take our ball and go home? Start making the case. With your colleagues, with your staff, with your bosses. The case that libraries cannot rely on intermediaries to act in our best interests. The case that libraries of all sizes must develop the technical and political infrastructure to negotiate for and host digital content on our terms. The case that the publishing industry as it now stands could walk away from libraries en masse tomorrow and come out smelling like a rose… and that such a move may be inevitable as the squeeze continues… and the case that we can’t buy our way out of this problem, even if we had the money. We need to invent our way out of this problem, and adapt to changing market conditions with solutions that work for patrons, for libraries, and for creators.
In other words, don’t rage against the dying of the light. There’s darkness ahead, but a new dawn awaits.
- eli neiburger, library renewal board member