That Tor Library eBook Lending Thing

Last week Tor Books announced that it would start windowing ebooks for libraries, which means that new ebook titles from Tor would now be available to libraries four months after their commercial release. So as an example, a book that’s released in August would be available to libraries in ebook form in November (print versions of the book will continue to be available on the official release date). Tor/Macmillan initially stated they’d seen some impact on retail sales because of ebook library lending, and is now participating in a study to dig deeper into the issue. Here’s a full writeup on this from Publishers Weekly, if you are interested in more details.

As I am a high-profile Tor author, people have been emailing me to ask what I think about the policy and/or to complain about it. I’ve been traveling for the last few days and doing events so I haven’t been able to dedicate any real brain cycles to it until last night, when I got home for good. Now that I have looked it over, I will tell you what I think, but I ask you to read completely to the end, as I will attempt nuance, and we all know how that goes.

My personal, first-blush reaction was that I’m not in love with this new strategy. I know my own personal sales, ebook and otherwise, and they’re perfectly healthy. Likewise as a supporter of libraries in general I like to see my work available to them, and to their patrons, in every format, on release day.

With that said, here are things to consider:

1. I am a bestselling author whose sales profile, length of contract and contractual compensation (both in amount and in scheduling) insulates me significantly from a lot of the immediate, first week/month sales pressures that most authors face these days. What works or is fine for me might not be what works or is fine for a new author who is trying to break into the field, or a mid-list author who needs to hit specific sales numbers to get that next book contract.

2. Tor says that it is noting a general impact on ebook sales because of library lending (its initial statement was more adamant about it, it appears, than some followups). I haven’t seen anyone’s sales numbers but mine, but I do know Tor’s data game is pretty strong — we use it to maximize my own sales and we’ve done a pretty good job there. Its data-mining history has some credibility for me.

3. Tor has not been a troglodyte either in how it proceeds with ebook tech (remember that it was one of the first major publishers to offer ebooks DRM-free) or in sales/marketing. It’s taken risks and done things other publishers didn’t/wouldn’t do, sometimes just to see what would happen. I have my own example of this: Tor’s ebook-first serialization publication of The Human Division and The End of All Things helped provide Tor with much of the data it used to build its successful Tor.com novella line.

So with all that noted, let’s go back to my first blush statement. I don’t think having day-and-date ebook library lending has had a detrimental effect on my own sales situation. I’m also aware I’m not in the same situation as most authors with regard to sales and attention. Tor has a financial and fiduciary duty to sell books, for itself and for its authors. If Tor wants to try a pilot program to window ebook library lending to find out what impact it has on its sales in general, as much as I don’t think it makes sense for me or my books, I also recognize I don’t see all the data Tor sees across its entire line. I’m also willing to believe, based on previous experience, that Tor is neither stupid, excessively greedy, nor unwilling to make changes if the data tells it something different than what it expects.

So: okay. Try it and see what happens. Then use that information moving forward.

In the meantime, things to remember: First, the print versions of books will still be available to libraries on release day, i.e., your library can still have the book(s) available when they come out. Let your library know you’re interested in the books so they can order print copies. Second, if you exclusively get ebooks from your library, waiting sucks but while you waiting there are lots of other books and authors to fill that interim. Read widely! Try new stuff! That time does not have to pass idly, I assure you. Third, whatever you think of this new tactic, remember at the bottom of this is a publisher trying different things so the authors whose work you love get compensated (and the publisher too, let’s be clear). Sales do matter for whether you get more books from an author, and whether an author gets paid enough for the books to write more of them.

Finally, a small plea: I get that people complain to me about Tor policies and practices, since I put myself out there and am accessible and I am basically a franchise player for my publisher. That’s totally fair, and I’m happy to be that; I’ve passed along the complaints and kvetches you’ve sent to me, and I’ve also shared my own thoughts on the matter. But if you’re contacting other Tor authors about this, please please please be kind to them. They didn’t have any say about this pilot program, can’t do much to change it at this point, and might feel they can’t respond for whatever reason. Not everyone feels, shall we say, as insulated from consequence when they open their mouth as I do, and making authors feel neurotic about things over which they have no control is not going to do them or you much good. Practice empathy, please.

Or, even better, let Tor and Macmillan know directly what you think. They’ve set up an email for you to do just that: elending.feedback@macmillan.com. That’s going to be so much more effective than making some poor author twitchy. Please tell Tor and Macmillian what you think! Straight to the source! Thanks.