Newbery, Caldecott, and knives to a knife fight

Last week Mike Shatzkin blogged about Barnes & Nobles’ refusal to sell Amazon-imprint paper books. It’s been a controversial move but Shatzkin thinks that B&N is playing the game right, leveraging its dominance as a paper bookseller — still a key factor in getting books in front of readers, in appealing to authors — to fight back against Amazon’s dominance in other parts of the space. Amazon may have the long-term edge, but right now B&N is using the leverage it has (and paper shelf space is leverage) to prevent a monopoly that would crush it.

You know who else puts paper books in front of readers? Libraries.

We don’t just put them out there, either; we recommend them and we pick a few to showcase every year. ALA awards 38 book, print, & media awards — some for books, others for journal articles or other things not necessarily part of the library circulation picture — but two dwarf the rest: Newbery and Caldecott.

Toby Greenwalt’s done some interesting guerrilla research on the effects these awards have on book sales. By enlisting contacts in the awards committees, he was able to get snapshots of Amazon sales rank for the awardees before and after they were announced. In every case the immediate bump in sales rank was dramatic. This is especially true for the Newbery and Caldecott winners, which went from sales rankings in the 20,000s to #32 and #101, respectively.

Amazon sales rankings don’t give direct data on profits, of course; Amazon’s notoriously secretive about that sort of information and I don’t have access to, say, BookScan, but I’m willing to take this as evidence that the ALA’s blessing via these awards translates directly into profits for their rights holders. Makes them, even, into the big-win books that subsidize the rest.

The question that Shatzkin’s article brought to mind, then, is: how many of these books are available, as ebooks, to libraries?

So I did some research. I looked up the Caldecott and Newbery winners and honorees, 2010-2012, along with their publishers (both the imprint and the top-level publisher; the former tends to be listed with the book but it’s the latter whose policy governs library ebook lending), and the publisher’s stance toward library ebook lending at the time of the award. (I used availability in OverDrive as a proxy for library ebook lending policy in some cases.)

Here’s what I found. Of 23 honorees:

  • 9 are from publishers that sold ebooks to libraries at the time of the award. (Not all exist in ebook format, using “availability for Kindle” as a proxy for “available in ebook format”, but if they were, their publishers make ebooks available to libraries. One is from HarperCollins before it announced its 26 checkout limit.)
  • 1 is from HarperColins, after it announced its policy of selling to libraries with a 26 checkout restriction.
  • 12 are from publishers which did not sell ebooks to libraries at the time of the award. (2 publishers, representing 3 books, have since partnered with OverDrive.)

One proved hard to track down. There’s nothing available by that publisher in my local OverDrive, but that doesn’t necessarily signify; the book is available in Kindle ebook.

So just to be clear: over half of the books that ALA has honored with its biggest awards since 2010 are books that the publishers would not at the time — and may not now — let libraries lend electronically. Over half.

Debates over library ebook access often descend into handwringing about access — we could back off from this, we could act on other principles, but patrons want these, we value access, these are the terms on which we can provide it. But this? This is not a question of access. This is a question of praise.

We are blessing these books, on our biggest stage.

We are handing their publishers money. Real, verifiable, money.

When they allow us, literally, nothing in return.

When is it okay to stop bringing hugs to a knife fight?

14 thoughts on “Newbery, Caldecott, and knives to a knife fight

  1. A few footnotes:

    1) My thinking in this post owes a lot to Toby Greenwalt, Heather McCormack, and Mike Shatzkin. Thanks.

    2) Disclosure, in case anyone cares: I received one of those 38 ALA awards (for an article in a library publication, well outside the scope of this analysis). My husband receives royalties from one of the publishers which was in the scope of this analysis (Holtzbrinck — they own Macmillan; we get about $80 a year, some but not all years).


    1. You’re welcome!

      Couldn’t say about the authors. Of course there’s a ton of factors that go into how authors end up with particular publishers (and how different formats of their book end up being published), and how their books end up marketed and distributed, and they aren’t necessarily under the author’s control. Be interesting to ask them, though.


  2. On the one hand I find these statistics heartening. There appears to be very little self-interest in the granting of these awards.

    I have a half-formed thought about whether libraries and universities should use their position as “impress-ors” to leverage favorable (even if deserved) treatment in the highly charged electronic-rights arena. I’m not necessarily opposed, but I think we have to be careful not to tarnish the idealistic view of these institutions, especially because I think other favorable situations are present specifically *because* there’s an idealistic view of these institutions. I’m conflicted on it – a discussion for another time perhaps.

    But the other thing I see from these statistics is that publishers are still loathe to make equivalent allowances for use of their digital product as they made for use of their physical product, even if there is a measurable incentive — and I guess I’m not too surprised by that.

    Do you think that the lack of ebook access being granted to libraries is a lack of publishers recognizing the boost libraries could give, or a misunderstanding of how to weigh that value (boost) against the perceived loss from digital distribution? Or even simplify that: is this lack most caused by the publisher devaluing libraries or by the publisher being terrified of losing control over ebooks?


  3. I see your point but I think that is a bias we shouldn’t indulge when recommending things to patrons, especially youth who we need to get reading at all costs.

    I also disagree with compromising the integrity of a long standing tradition that represents all libraries for what is a likely short term business dispute.


  4. Presumably the reason that libraries are involved in the Caldecott and Newbery awards and not the Clio Award or the Nobel Peace Prize is that books are more the sort of thing that libraries do than are advertisements or international diplomacy. So it’s reasonable to ask the question of what would be done with a book that was definitionally _not_ something that libraries could lend.

    Consider a Kindle Single with lending turned off (I should note that some Kindle Singles are eventually published in physical form and many have lending on, but consider the extreme case). Such a book would have literally no lendable manifestation; it would be as relevant to libraries as C-format paperbacks are to the Nobel and Clio committees.

    Should such a book be eligible for a library award? It seems to me that “no” would not only be a reasonable answer but the obvious answer.

    Books with no lendable manifestation are rare right now (there are all of perhaps fifty nonlendable, ebook-only Kindle Singles in Amazon right now) but they will become more common. This might present an opportunity for the library world to to make a statement from in front of this trend rather than, later, from beneath it.


  5. I think the data that’s missing from this equation is the demand for those titles in e-format. Are those titles even available electronically? Are people asking for them in that format? If these particular titles are available as e-books, what are the sales like for that title in that format? I’ve not seen too many children reading on Kindles and the like – but that’s just anecdotal. These are honest questions – I don’t know but think these would be important factors. I would want that type of information before I would use the awards as a bargaining chip.


    1. Most of the Newberys and about half the Caldecotts are available electronically (details in my notes, linked in the post). I’m not in a position to know if people are requesting them electronically, but I’d love to hear comments from people who do have access to public library ebook lending logs! Sales figures will be harder as that would mostly be Amazon, and Amazon is pretty closed-mouthed about data.

      But again, for me, the point isn’t the specific titles. The point is the policies of the publishing houses. OK, two points — the policies of the publishing houses, and thinking creatively about the sorts of leverage librarians can have in negotiations.

      Thanks for commenting.


  6. Correction – just looked at your spreadsheet and see you did collect info on which books are available as in an e-format. Sorry to have missed that! But I think knowing the sales rate for the e-version before and after the title is nominated/awarded would be helpful. If there’s no real demand for the book in that format, using the awards to try to get better lending terms isn’t going to work.


    1. And I see we were commenting at the same time :).

      Again, I’d note that the point isn’t trying to get better lending terms *for those books* (you’re right that that wouldn’t be very interesting if they were not sought-after as ebooks). The point is trying to get better terms for ALL books. And thinking about leverage, and about the fact that libraries and librarians are giving real, important, profitable gifts to publishers who do not necessarily reciprocate.

      I found it striking that we are willing to give such gifts to publishers who will not make their content available to libraries. That doesn’t mean this is the best or the only negotiating tool we could be using, though. What other tools would you like to see librarians use in negotiating for more favorable terms?


  7. I think you need to take into account that picture books (the Caldecott winners and honors) are less likely to be found in electronic formats for many reasons–they usually need color; they are usually for young children; they rely on format and design far more than novels (the bulk of Newbery winners and honors). But if you take the Caldecotts out of your equation, your results don’t seem that startling and/or egregious.


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