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?