Thursday, August 02, 2007

What If Public Libraries Sold Books???

As I was brushing my teeth (and pushing Dinah out of the sink basin--she seems to believe that the curvature of my bathroom sink was designed for her lounging pleasure), I had an interesting thought.

Back on April 28th here, I made the following speculation:

What I suspect is going to happen is that the lines between publisher, distributor, bookstore and author are going to start blurring. Unusual contracts among the different parties are likely to emerge.

Remember the line I already quoted from the New York Times article this morning?

On Demand Books is pitching the EBM, "which may eventually sell for $20,000 or more, principally toward the nation’s 16,000 public libraries and 25,000 bookstores. A 300-page book costs about $3 to produce with the machine. A bookstore or library could then sell it to customers or library members at cost or at a markup."

Add public libraries to the institutions in which the lines will begin to blur.

Public libraries are already struggling to find their niche in the digital age. What if they began selling print-on-demand books to the public at slightly above cost? Think of the impact that could have on the equation.

There have been isolated stories recently of towns forced to close their public libraries. What if the libraries could help to sustain themselves via book sales?

If ever there was a time to think outside the box, this is it.

Update: More thoughts on the subject. While public libraries could certainly print anything in the public domain (Beowulf, Pride & Prejudice, Shakespeare), they would not have the werewithal to negotiate the issue of rights. They could print the public domain books which students need to read for assigned classes. My guess is that they could undercut the prices of both bookchains and the used bookstores and still make a tidy profit.

Who could be a significant player in industry change would be the university presses/libraries.

Although most people don't realize it, the biggest chunk of the publishing industry is the textbook industry.

In my own graduate program, most of my textbooks were authored by my own professors. If those instructors and the university decided to use POD technology to print the textbooks, my guess is that the professors could get a royalty hike, the students could get a price break and the university could pick up a chunk of change, too.

It would be interesting to see how the numbers of such an experiment would look.


Stephen Parrish said...

I argued enthusiastically in comments to a previous post that the EBM represented a dramatic change in publishing technology, even if the change must wait for unit prices to come down. Installed in shopping malls, etc., consumers could buy books at substantially lower prices because publishers wouldn't need to warehouse print runs. The number of books sold would more or less equal the number of books printed. I love the idea.

Even more exciting, in my opinion, is the idea of libraries using EBMs to generate revenue. The phenomenon would completely alter our definition of "bookstore."

I'd love to hear what Peter has to say.

David Roth said...

It's a little different issue, but my wife and I purchased the last two Harry Potter books (6 & 7) at our Library. Each time we paid on average $9 more than we could have gotten the books for at B&N or Wal-mart, but the difference went to support our Library. Given what our Library gives us in return (not the least of which are the free books and DVD checkouts, and a place for our writing group to meet twice a month for free) I consider this a more than reasonable return on investment. I think this new technology definately has a place. For some books, which I could call legacy publications - things you want a publisher's first edition, I'd still get the book the traditional way, but for others - for example selling my book of poetry this way - I'm all for it.

As for textbooks - I remember taking my daughter to get books for her first semester of college, and paying more for used books than her tuition cost for that semester. There is something way wrong with that. Any technology that gives kids a break in a world of relentlessly rising tuition is a good idea. I have a pet peeve about all this and may blog about it today - din't know yet. Thanks for more great information, Maya.