The First of Many Conversations: Librarians and Independent Publishers Come Together at IndieLib 2024

Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, saw libraries and publishers as star-crossed lovers that have been kept far apart for as long as possible, finally meeting in one room in Columbus, OH, at IndieLib, a conference hosted by the Independent Publishers Caucus and the Digital Public Library of America on April 2.

panelists sitting in front of a wall, moderator in front of a projected screen
Claire Kelley, IndieLib Planning Chair and Marketing Director at Seven Stories Press moderates a panel featuring Steve Sposato, Manager of Collection Development & Readers Advisory, Chicago Public Library; Robin Bradford, Pierce County Library System, WA, Collection Development Librarian; Stephanie Anderson, Bookops Assistant Director of Selection, New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library; and Ann Lehue, Ingram Library Services, Director of Collection Development.
Photo by Jane Friedman

It was the start of a beautiful love story.

That’s how Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, described IndieLib, a conference hosted on April 2 by the Independent Publishers Caucus (IPC) and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). He saw libraries and publishers as star-crossed lovers that have been kept far apart for as long as possible, now finally meeting in one room in Columbus, OH, the day prior to the 2024 Public Library Association Conference.

Buoyant enthusiasm permeated a day of informational panels and inspiring keynotes, where libraries and publishers sought ways to better communicate and tackle shared challenges. These days, those challenges are numerous and include powerful corporations that dominate the business, ongoing attacks on the freedom to read, and the ever-present dilemma of discoverability. Before even half the day had passed, Reynolds said, “Extraordinary things are happening in this room.… I’ve learned more about how libraries work in the past three hours than in the past 20 years. Incredibly eye-opening and stimulating.”

During IndieLib’s opening talk by author Rebecca Giblin, she pointed out that publishers and libraries keep getting told their interests are in opposition to one another. She urged everyone to consider whether that’s really the case, or if keeping the two sides in an adversarial position is in fact to the benefit of more powerful players, who stand to maximize their profits and market share if everyone is kept in the dark about the dynamics of digital lending and licensing. “It’s a trap to accept this ‘publishers versus libraries’ dichotomy,” she said. “We need to be thinking of this as a class issue instead.”

Invoking the title of her book, Chokepoint Capitalism (Beacon Press) , Giblin said chokepoints are everywhere in the book publishing industry, typically controlled by people who are interested in extracting as much money as possible from the system. She asked the room, “How can we, as book people, combine forces to take back more control of the book industry? How can we widen these chokepoints out?” The answer, in part: much better communication between publishers and libraries.

Giblin discussed her research into licensing terms of more than 100,000 titles available in OverDrive to find out how older books are priced and licensed compared to newer titles. Even though there is typically less demand for older titles, Giblin found that their pricing and licensing terms are similar to newer books, with “exploding licenses”—a term that became increasingly favored throughout the day to refer to digital books removed from library systems after a set time period, no matter the number of circulations. Many libraries avoid purchasing exploding-license books where demand is uncertain—and instead choose books they’re confident will circulate—this can disadvantage titles without Big Five marketing and visibility.

Meanwhile, publishers rarely know which libraries are licensing their books; they don’t receive that information from distributors/aggregators because such players do not typically share that data proactively. Giblin said the conference was a step in the right direction so that both sides can get more of what they want. “That the money people don’t want the book people to have access to their own data might be a sign that we need it,” she noted.

During a panel focused on the ebook licensing landscape, two publishers and one library representative discussed what they’re doing to encourage experimentation and advocate for library access. Elham Ali, the trade marketing lead for ECW Press, a midsize Canadian publisher, said they want their books available in as many channels as possible, reaching as many readers as possible; thus, they offer many different licensing options for libraries. In part, they are able to do that by not working with aggregators. Instead, ECW has a small team of people who engage directly with 10 different vendors, so they can be flexible and implement requests from librarians with ease. In Canada, there are generally more flexible licensing models than the United States because Canadian libraries have actively fought for more fair pricing. “We’ve really been listening,” Ali said. “It makes no sense to make it has hard as possible to buy our books.”

Fortunately, Ingram Library Services, used by some of the attending publishers for library distribution, has been working with the Palace Project to experiment with more lending models. Micah May, DPLA director of ebook services, said Ingram-distributed publishers will be invited to offer up to four different licensing models through Palace. One is a perpetual license model, while the other three are metered models—but importantly not bound by time, with no exploding licenses.

Discussion turned to what libraries can do to provide the “right” incentives to publishers to offer better licensing terms. Lisa Sallee, the assistant director of Ocean State Libraries, RI, recommended librarians “just say no” to unfavorable terms. She was able to get her membership to agree as a whole not to spend more than $79.99 for 24-month access to any title, and would like to set that cap even lower. She also noted that their system has implemented a tiered hold ratio model. For books priced at a rate the library finds fair or favorable, Ocean State will buy another license with just one hold, with the ratio increasing in incremental steps based on terms or pricing. When an Ocean State library decides to spend $79.99 on a license, the title must first accrue 30 holds before the library will obtain another license. Sallee urged everyone to consider how libraries can shape demand rather than simply fulfill demand. Stephanie Anderson, assistant director of selection at BookOps in New York—the collection management service for New York and Brooklyn public libraries—agreed, saying patrons want to borrow something that’s available. She doesn’t mind spending more if she knows she gets to keep that book “forever” through a perpetual license, and will reward publishers that offer something affordable.

Whether publishers can deliver better or more flexible terms to librarians partly depends on distribution partners to help them provide those terms. Publishers present sought more direct communication with libraries when possible or feasible to overcome the information blackout that continues to frustrate them. Toward the end of the day, during a big-picture perspectives panel, Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press (and IPC cofounder), said, “The potential with libraries is just so great, and we don’t have direct, obvious access. So that’s something we need to discover together. We could be developing, together, the future.” In a nod to Giblin’s talk, he added, “We don’t have to be pushed around” by powerful partners such as the Big 5 publishers, Amazon, and OverDrive. “The way that we’re pests to them makes them better, makes them smarter, it cuts into their corporate culture, it makes their culture better. The more we bark at them, the more they respect us.”

One of the hallmarks of a successful relationship is presenting a united front to the world. If all goes well, the attendees of IndieLib will continue the conversation together, in a productive—and less star-crossed—way.

Jane Friedman is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press) and editor of The Hot Sheet, a paid newsletter about the book publishing industry.

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