Bilbary must be bil-kidding

If you read e-books from your local library, you might be aware that books from certain publishers—Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin, to be precise—are not available for check-out. Why is this? I’m going to cut to the chase and say money. The big publishers are afraid of losing money if they lose control of the digital version of their product.

Fair enough, I say. No one is in business to lose money, and I can appreciate the desire of all publishers to protect their investments.

However, I also call it shenanigans. Publishers have been selling books to libraries for, well, as long as there have been libraries and printing presses. Both have managed to do pretty well over the years. Libraries have served a valuable civic and educational purpose by providing books to the general public at little or no cost. Has this free lending cost book publishers money? Maybe and maybe not. One would have to assume that if a book were not available at the local library, a patron would buy it at a bookstore. And that’s a big assumption.

It’s similar to saying if radio stations stopped playing music over the airwaves, then people would hit the record stores (or iTunes) in mass numbers. Doubtful. What’s more likely is that while libraries may have cost publishers some sales over the years, they’ve probably more than made up for it by exposing the general public to authors and books they’d never find otherwise. After all, many libraries only buy a few copies of a given new book, and unless you want to wait for the 84 patrons ahead of you on the waiting list to read it, you may just head to the bookstore.

Back to the publishers. In spite of decades and decades of selling physical books to libraries, they’re balking on e-books. And there’s no reason to. E-books come with digital rights management. That basically means they’re hard to copy; they can’t be lent to other library patrons (unlike physical books); and they expire automatically after a given time frame. They’re cheaper for publishers to mass-produce and distribute, and don’t take up shelf space in libraries.

While this seems like a good business proposition, the publishers don’t think so. Rather, they think this as an opportunity to reset the relationship with libraries. Maybe they feel they didn’t get enough of a taste when it came to physical books in the past, so they’re going to rewrite the rules on e-books and make sure that doesn’t happen again. Otherwise, they won’t play.

Well, enter Bilbary, a new venture from Tim Coates who, it is reported, is a long-timer in the publishing industry. Basically, Bilbary works like this—if the library in question doesn’t have the e-book you want in its inventory, Bilbary gives you the opportunity to buy it. Can’t you just do that at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or your local mom and pop? Yes, but Bilbary gives 50 percent of its net profit to the library.

Bilbary thinks it’s really doing something great, but all it is really doing is lining the publisher’s pockets and costing the patrons more money. One could argue it’s great to support the public library, but that can be done without buying an e-book from Bilbary. Just write the library a check. Or, better yet, demand that local and state governments support libraries at the level they deserve.

This is what needs to happen:

  1. The publishers (specifically the three of the big six that aren’t cooperating) need to stop seeing dollar signs and continue to work with libraries just as they always have.
  2. Libraries need to hand out the phone number and e-mail address of the CEOs of Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin to customers who ask why certain e-books aren’t available.
  3. Patrons should boycott books from Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin until they drop their absurd stance. This hits the companies where it hurts them the most—their pocketbooks.

Shame on these three publishers. And kudos to Harper Collins, Random House and Little Brown.

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