Conversation: Outrage is Not Adaptive

March 7, 2011
Posted in: Board Member Posts, Buzz

In the interest of continuing the conversation on this issue, we’d like to highlight some of the comments from the library community made on Outrage is not Adaptive from early last week.  The point is not that outrage is an inappropriate emotion in this situation, but that it may not be a constructive emotion in this situation.  Because public outcry has saved libraries in the past, it’s become the first tool we reach for in crisis.  This situation is different from routine budget brinksmanship, because you have to be inside libraries to understand how this one little decision can be so dangerous.  It’s simply not public outrage material, no matter how you spin it, especially in an environment where libraries need to be saving up political capital just to keep the doors open, not burning it making a fuss about something that’s too inside baseball to break out.

So, with that said, I’d like to respond to some points raised in the comments:

HarperCollins shouldn’t have forced Overdrive into this without talking directly to libraries. I hope that maybe some of these actions will force them to rescind, to think twice about these kinds of actions, or to set something up where this is discussed before implemented. – Jeff Scott

I agree that they shouldn’t have done this without talking to libraries. But how, exactly, does a publisher talk to libraries? Would this have gone any better with trial balloons or focus groups? We’ve seen an excellent example of exactly how publishers talk to libraries, and I don’t think the conversation would have gone much differently if that email had come out before the letter that started the whole frissom.  The bigger issue is that I think the execs involved knew exactly what they wanted to try, and they had a pushable surface upon which to make it happen.  I’m not certain where the business case is for asking libraries just how they’d like to get screwed.  They knew we weren’t going to like this.  They also knew that librarian outrage would have no impact on their ability to establish the license terms they wanted with their partners.  Are they wrong?  Is there really an attainable level of outrage that would make them wrong?

It is a shame, though; think about how this might have gone differently if publishers had instead launched a new, unlimited use, 1-year ebook license option, renewable annually, at a cost 10x-20x the single-copy-single-user model, to be sold alongside “traditional” ebooks. We might be having a very different conversation right now, as there would have been something in it for us.  But really, how could they have had a conversation with Libraries, in whole or in part, that might have borne such fruit?  If we had feedback time with a publisher, is this what we’d push for? Some way to give them more money?  Heck no, we’d ignore their talking points entirely and paw through their things looking for free galleys, just like we do at Annual.

I think the outrage is evidence of the fact that we have no coherent, national level political voice when it comes to dealing with “business” because we are not a business. – joe grobelny

I disagree with joe’s comment that “we are not a business.” libraries may not have the cash, wardrobe, or breathtaking profits of “business” as we know it, but we are a business. how can we expect a seat at the table if we think of ourselves as anything less? -ruth

I think this is at the heart of the “SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING” cries we’re hearing around the web.  Part of my message was that this is not personal, it’s business, and if we want to be taken more seriously by publishers than our volume would otherwise merit, we need to go to the mattresses the way businesses do: armed with attorneys, contracts, warchests, and risk tolerance, not the way that nonprofits do: with awareness campaigns, position statements, Pro Bono hours, and rattling our picket-signing sharpies if nobody will talk to us.  Ruth is absolutely right; if we want a seat at the grownup table, we need to realize that doodling “Publishers are Poopyheads and they Smell” on the placemat is not likely to get us there. Not to characterize the biblioblogosphere as placemat doodling, of course, but to demonstrate the maladaptive impact of throwing around recrimination.

Could you offer potential examples of “technical and political infrastructure” we could develop? Are you suggesting that libraries should become publishers, or at least become somehow embedded in the publishing process? If so, how do you envision this happening? – Graham Lavender

Thanks for asking, Graham! The technical infrastructure means bringing the storage, delivery, and handling of ebooks in-house, so we’re not dependent on yet more intermediaries to do the work that we’ve been doing for centuries, just because it’s digital now. Whether we become involved in the actual production of ebooks is another question; it’s certainly a big opportunity for libraries, but that’s putting the cart before the horse if we don’t first establish the infrastructure required to do our thing.  As for political infrastructure, that means building administrative vision, scope of mission, and tolerance of billable hours that it’s going to take to establish a meaningful role for libraries as more and more of the hottest content ceases to be made available to us.  Because it’s really all about Teh Hawtness; if we weren’t talking about content in the middle or at the peaks of their demand curves, we would again be having a very different discussion, at least in public libraries.

Of course, outrage is a tactic- and not just within the community, but as a communication with the public. We can argue that it’s not an effective tactic, but I think that the responses we’ve seen already are more then we would have seen otherwise. – Carlos

This is where I think we need to be very careful. There’s inside baseball outrage — librarians and bibliobloggers and nascent think-and-do tanks — and then there’s stirring the mighty pot of public outrage, upon which we depend from time to time when upstream funders look askance at the value of the libraries they fund and sharpen their pencils. We need to be very careful about what we ask the public to be outraged about, and when. Outrage fatigue is a very real thing, and if you look at all the outrageous things going on at this place-moment in spacetime, 26 checkouts and poof is pretty dang low on the list.  That’s not moral relativism, that’s picking your battles, and choosing not to burn your political capital on a skirmish and not have any left when the real bomb gets dropped.

Imagine a blacksmith who found a new roofing nail factory opening next door.  He could round up all his friends, make signs, picket the place for threatening his way of life, make speeches decrying that he wasn’t consulted, and use whatever people used to express their outrage before twitter, but none of that is going to change the fact that he ain’t seen nothing yet, and he is simply never going to make any money on roofing nails, ever again, no matter how many points he manages to score on the fat cats next door. His time would be better spent developing his custom artisanal wrought iron gate skills and thinking about how he can stay in business in a world where roofing nails are worth so little.

What will come of this? I don’t know. Ideally, I’d like to see some sort of library-lending principle established–one that every publisher assented to and won’t break for fear of consumer anger. More left-wing types will, I think, prefer a law. Either way, outrage can affect change. – Tim

This would be great,  if publishers didn’t dare deny workable digital access to their content for fear of consumer reprisal, or even better, some sort of statutory or from-the-bench assurance that libraries must have digital access to content if the rightsholder wants continued protection from the copyright act.  Unfortunately, I still can’t get these ideas past my YEAH RIGHT filter. Closed ebook markets are hot, hot prospects right now, and I haven’t seen a single drop of consumer outrage over libraries’ inability to access those platforms in any real way. Furthermore, it significantly undermines our outrage over the current situation when it surfaces that there are big houses who won’t deal with libraries on ebooks at all, and we appear to be just fine with that.

We need multiple responses, I think. – Jamie LaRue

Yes, THIS. We need many prongs on this one, perhaps more about “what do we do after we’re cut out completely” and less about “what can we do to make them change their minds?”  I urge you to read Jamie’s entire comment, as, with the exception of talking about this with the public which I disadvised above, Jamie lays out a set of broad approaches, all of which are within our reach as an industry today, and each of which can be a strong response not just to this incident, but to the countless incidents like it that are yet to come.

Thanks very much for your comments and careful thought about this issue; looking forward to continuing this discussion.


Eli Neiburger, Library Renewal Board Member

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