That Tor Library eBook Lending Thing
Posted on July 22, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 54 Comments
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: email@example.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.
I can see this being a high-emotion subject for some folks, so, notes:
1. Be polite, and polite to each other, please.
2. Please don’t use this as an opportunity to get on your personal soapbox about The Demise of Traditional Publishing and/or How Self Publishing Is The Only Way and/or Surely Tor Is Doomed Just Like I’ve Been Saying For Years, etc. It’s not, it’s not, and trust me, it’s not. Try to stick to the topic at hand, please.
3. Likewise, as cathartic as it might be to post here about boycotting Tor/Macmillan until they dump this program (as I’ve seen suggested elsewhere), let me suggest to you that such proclamations would be more effective sent to Tor/Macmillan directly at the email noted at the end of the entry than they would be posted here. The Tor/Macmillan brass will not be loitering in this comment thread, I assure you.
4. Just in case it needs to be noted further than it was in the piece: I was not part of the decision-making process of this initiative, nor did I know anything about it until information about it was released publicly this week. I have noted to people at Tor that I’ve received comments about it. They are aware of what those comments have been. And while I’ve expressed my own opinions (which, unsurprisingly, mirror what I’ve noted here), I don’t expect my opinions to move any needles over at Tor, since this decision was made based their own data, rather than entirely on managerial whim. I do believe if it has a negative effect that they will course correct (and if it has a positive effect, that you will see this sort of windowing grow).
For the record, I’m still waiting to read Head On as an ebook from my local library, because the waiting list is very long. Not getting something right away is the price I pay for expecting it to be both free and convenient. Having an extra time cost from the publisher is annoying, but Tor knows that, and they’re hoping that it will sometimes be annoying enough that I’ll give them more money instead.
But I have a choice to buy; not everyone does.
This strikes me as similar to the policy of studios withholding release of DVDs to Redbox. I understand the reason, but I think it’s an attempt to hold back the technological tide (and Redbox will largely disappear in another decade, I think).
Personally, I don’t think this will have much effect on Tor’s sales. Library patrons already wait months or even up to a year to get ahold of books and movies they want but don’t want to pay for. They’ll survive a few more months. The one thing the vast majority won’t do is buy the book if they weren’t going to buy it anyway.
The other thing they’ll do is complain to library workers, especially if there’s no placeholder record in the system that allows them to get on the hold list for when the item does become available. Many patrons grumble about how long they have to wait, but they really don’t like it if they can’t even get on the waiting list before the book is released.
Tor has not been a troglodyte about ebooks, but Macmillan certainly has been anti ebook in the past. I dropped a number of their authors years ago when the whole agency pricing thing first started, and still haven’t gotten around to catching up on books I missed during that period.
But…setting my bias as far aside as I can, I have mixed emotions about this experiment. I really want authors to make money. Unfortunately , I can no longer read paper books due to health reasons. Same health reasons have cut my book budget substantially, and so yes, I do get some ebooks from the library. As such, I know the process pretty well. My library will often get multiple ebook copies for a popular new release, and even then, the day it becomes available, the waiting list may reach 100 people long. This means those people are already waiting months for that book.
Would they buy it if they had to wait even longer? That’s what Macmillan is hoping, I’m sure. For my part, not bloody likely. My autobuy list and budget are maxxed out already. There are plenty of other books out there to read, and most likely, I’ll simply forget about that book entirely. If the author is lucky, I’ll remember to look for it later, but (see above) it’s not uncommon for me to drop an author altogether for months or years if I can’t at least get onto a waiting list for a new release.
Waiting, say, six weeks to release copies to the library, so first month sales are less impacted? I can understand that. But mostly, I suspect there won’t be a significant improvement to Macmillan’s overall sales by doing this. The impact will simply be fewer books in the hands of those who can’t afford to buy them anyway.
Man, libraries are catching shit from all sides this week, aren’t they?
“First, the print versions of books will still be available to libraries on release day”
I have no dog in this fight directly, because I purchase ebooks (in fact I usually pre-order a lot.) And I’m a major consumer – an outlier on the bell curve. I usually have anywhere between 2 and 6 ebooks appear on my Kindle every Tuesday. I own about 4000 Nookbooks (purchased over a dozen or more years and many ported from Fictionwise.) And another 3000 Kindle books.
That said, many people in my age group (mid 60s) are becoming more dependent on ebooks for ease of reading (print size adjustment) and are dependent on libraries for access to most ebooks. This new policy penalizes older people and the economically disadvantaged.
I also think there may be some people who use this to justify seeking out pirated versions of ebooks.
For reasons related to my disabilities, I’ve mostly stopped getting physical books. It’s hard to hold them open for long without hand/arm/shoulder pain, and when my eyes get in on the act, having text I can’t backlight, magnify, or change the font on makes them much less accessible to me.
I’ve switched almost entirely to ebooks and audiobooks, and it really sucks for me & others like me, who use these more accessible formats, to be told it’s not as important for us to get access to That Book We’ve Been Eagerly Waiting For. A whole lotta disabled folks are living in government-mandated poverty, and libraries are the only real option for getting to read the Hot New Thing that’s come out.
I get that there are a lot of layers involved in this, but it just doesn’t feel like people with disabilities were considered in this at all. Which, well, par for the course, I suppose.
@SteveC – well, it’s actually more like movies being in the theater first… then on iTunes at the same time as Blu-ray Discs…. but for sale only. THEN, sometime later, they are rentable. And THEN… even later… they might come to a streaming service. Each phase makes the movie more easily available for less money. Technology really isn’t the driver.
On ebooks… I think the 4 month window is too long. 1 month feels more friendly to people who rely on ebooks from their library, maybe 2. I would be surprised if early sales are affected much by people who have already waited 60 days.
The ‘read more widely’ appeal, btw, is only so valid. If I’m waiting for, say, the new John Scalzi, reading other things while I wait isn’t quite the point… I want the new Scalzi! That said, if I couldn’t afford it I’d just treat it as not released.
Finally, would love to see more price experimentation. New releases from Neal Asher, for example, start at $15.99 which is a lot of money. I don’t want to start the ‘ebooks should be priced at….” thing, but I’m surprised that publishers aren’t trying other pricing strategies than simply mirroring how the do hardbacks, trades and then MM paperbacks. Some people go to the library for their books because the pricing can be very high on release. Then again, I do see a lot of “today only, X is $2.99!” sales too.
Why not have a clause in your contract with Tor that ebook versions of your books will be made available the same day they are on sale to the public? As a successful author, I would think you have some leverage in this.
This will be an excellent idea when I am next up for contract negotiation, sometime in 2026 or 2027.
I read paperbacks exclusively for most of my life, then graduated to hardcover and I’m now fully into ebooks (including from the library). Waiting a few extra months for a book I’m looking forward to has been part of my reading experience for most of my life. I see this as a similar strategy and, while it’s an adjustment as a reader, it makes sense.
I understand the reasoning, but 4 months is just too long, especially since the wait lists for borrowing ebooks tend to be much longer than for paper. Like others, I often find it difficult to read physical books due to type size or weight. I’m also on a limited budget – I can’t afford to buy books I don’t know I’ll like. However, I’m a re-reader, so if I like a book a lot I’ll buy a copy of the ebook.
This also raises a question – why single out ebooks? If you think you’re losing sales to libraries, shouldn’t you also window physical books? My library usually gets the physical books first, anyway (many times they don’t order the ebook until someone requests it), so I get on the waiting list for those right away and then request the ebook if the type’s too small or the book’s too heavy. So if you window the ebook and not the hardcover, I’ll read the hardcover and still not buy the book until I’ve read it and decided I want to own it.
I think I will wait four months to buy a new TOR/Macmillan book … if enough of us do maybe they’ll see a sales spike at 4 months and a day and put it all together.
It’s not as if Tor announced they’d NEVER release e-books to libraries so it’s just a matter of waiting like you would for something on hold. Tempest in a tea pot.
My local library is a location of a small, regional network for our county. I know that even though ebooks tend to have longer wait lists I may wait the same length of time for a paper copy, many times it has to come in on an inter library loan. If I can wait-list a book, then the extra delay won’t really make a difference since I’ll probably be waiting quite a while anyway. I will have forgotten I was on the list, so when notified it’s like a gift from past-me. (Ebook pre-orders are the same way)
I don’t have any urgent need to read things right when they come out, and I’m not bothered by spoilers (for the most part).
All that aside – hey folks who borrow ebooks, finish them, and then don’t bother to “return” them but just leave it to expire on it’s own, some days later… maybe check the software/apps you use and see if you ~can~ return them? Help shorten the gap for people downlist?
I too read a lot of ebooks from the library and agree that 4 months seems too long. Unless part of the strategy is to have some sale pricing going on during the 4 months in which case, for my favorite authors, I would probably buy in the meantime. But for most of the authors I read, I want to read the book first and most books I read, I don’t need to own. Where I see a possible disadvantage in terms of marketing is that I won’t be able to get some books during the year they are published which means I won’t be able to nominate them for awards or vote for them either. Between the 4 months and the calendar year requirement, there are many sci-fi books I won’t even be able to look at in time. This is not a hardship to me as there are other publishers who, so far, are not doing this, but I have favored Tor in the past and will probably be unable to do that during this test.
I’m sure, as the above comments suggest, that this will affect people differently depending on the library system from which they borrow.
In mine, in Portland, OR, there is only rarely more than a single copy of any ebook. The borrow time is 3 weeks, and very few borrowers seem to know how to return their ebook when they finish reading it (!!!), so every time it goes the full 3 weeks. Thus if I’m 5th in line for an ebook, it’s going to be at least 12 weeks (the 4 people ahead of me) before I’ll see it anyway. So I’m used to waiting for ebooks, and I assume other people are too. Still, several extra months is a little discouraging.
Oh, and when a new book is ordered, the library may get it on the release date, but my system takes two weeks before the copies are available to borrow. The only way I know of to get the book on publication day is to order it and get it that day at a book store.
Phooey. With another four months between hearing about a book and getting to place a hold on it, I’m sort of guaranteed to forget or lose interest in a lot of stuff from Tor. I only buy an ebook if I already borrowed it and loved it so much I want to reread it, or if it’s from one of a few authors whose books I pretty consistently love.
This is going to do *nothing* for their sales– most people who are getting their ebooks at the library are people who aren’t going to go out and buy them regardless. I tell people they’re going to have to wait months for a thing all the time; only very rarely does that result in someone saying “well I’ll just get it off of Amazon”. More often it results in exasperated grumbling.
You know what this *is* going to result in? More people yelling at me over something I had no control over. I get enough of that already; Tor declaring that they’re going to do more of it is not inclining me to look on them favorably.
I don’t mind thinking of hard copy release vs ebook release in much the same way as I look at movie release vs dvd release. In addition to your own desires to to read or see something as soon as possible, one also needs to take into account the ways and amounts that the creators of such works are compensated.
What pays the artists more- 10 people buying a book, 1 person buying a book and sharing it with 9 other friends in turn, or a Library buying a hard bound or an ebook copy that potentially hundreds can read? Yes, I know a Library edition of a ebook is more that what one person pays on kindle, but not so significantly more.
Arttists and writers need compensation for their work.
I will wait for the library to offer the ebook unless I am anxious to read it as soon as it is published/released. And, BTW, often I will donate hard copy items to my local library items that I have read, watched, or listened to and do not feel the need to find shelf space for.
As I posted on File770, I’m in strong disagreement with this policy for the reasons others have mentioned above. I’m fortunate enough to have access to what are essentially three eLibraries – my local town library has access to an Overdrive eLibrary (affected by this) and the Hoopla Digital Library (which I do not believe Tor books are available on, so it’s unaffected), and as a New York Resident I also have access to the New York Public Library which has both Overdrive and Biblioteca library services for ebooks (both affected this).
In all three of the affected library sources, it is rare that when I reserve books immediately available upon release date that I get them right away, usually there’s at least a decent if not substantial waiting list – Spinning Silver for example has a waiting list of “less than 6 months” from the NYPL, despite the NYPL having 17(!) licensed ecopies. When I do manage to get those books right away, odds are there’s a waiting list behind me (which I notice if I immediately try to reborrow it to re-read).
To suggest something Scalzi points out above, the few times I do get books right away and there’s not waiting lists behind me is when the books are from less popular authors – so the ones Tor might be claiming to be harmed by ebook lending. Here’s the thing – for most of those authors, I’m not likely to ever purchase their works at the price point for the first four months – I can’t afford them. If this policy is extending to the Tor.com novellas, as I think it is, that’s also true there, and I suspect it is for a lot of people – charging $9.99 for an under 200 page novella (often substantially shorter) is really rough and I’m unlikely to purchase such a novella without a prior read in the library. So I think they’re not going to see much of a change in their bottom line at best – and the loss of purchases after reserving and purchases after library readers review books online might make the result negative.
Here to make friends…
I have two young daughters. They have pretty much memorized my “that’s a ‘want’ not a ‘need'” speech, and have their eye-roll responses down cold. Yes, it would be lovely to get an ebook free from the library when the book is released. My daughters similarly hold that it would be lovely if I bought them that Sims expansion pack when it is released. I extol to my daughters the merits of delayed gratification. They don’t buy it, either.
@Kit: “most people who are getting their ebooks at the library are people who aren’t going to go out and buy them regardless.”
Absolutely wrong. At least for me. I absolutely use both my city and county libs to screen new books, even from authors which I already love. I added the lib’s RSS-new-books-feed into feedly so that I know exactly which books (physical and ebook) just became purchased/available-for-checkout, so I am typically very early into the hold queue. Whenever I checkout a book that I simply can-not-put-down, I typically go and buy a nice hardcover of it for my collection (typically == sometimes a paperback or an ebook, but I do like the big-impressive-bookshelf).
This new TOR policy potentially delays that last sentence. Which is fine, I guess. I read widely and my list of holds is always long. Filling that 4 month timegap is not an issue. I’ll also still buy that I-cannot-put-it-down book, but that sale might show up much later after the book was released.
Where I see the policy might have a similar effect is on bookclubs. Bookclubs might choose to wait to pick any given book so that it is widely available in all formats at many large library systems.
Now, Circling back to the beginning of this response… Several Hardcopies of Scalzi books (but not all of them) are currently sitting on my bookshelves, via this process that I use.
I’ve had times where I could buy books and money droughts where I exclusively used libraries over 45+ years and I cannot remember one time ever where I was able to read a new release book within months of when it was published (hardcopy OR ebook). Yes it’s frustrating when that book you really want to read isn’t available but part of the fun of using libraries is stumbling across new treasures you wouldn’t have found anyway. I suspect that many of the people threatening ‘boycotts’ wouldn’t be buying or not much anyway.
Publishers and authors have to make money. They will play with the models to see what shakes out. I’d rather wait longer and have publishers be able to afford to take on new authors, personally. I’m surprised there is still so much emphasis on the first 4 months given the changing landscape of publishing. What about the authors that gained slow traction and went on the have steady sales of ebooks over longer periods? (at minimal cost to publishers). Time will tell.
Thanks for giving us the direct email address for Tor. I will certainly let them know my opinion. I am a librarian as well as an active library user. You can imagine my thoughts.
I prefer my books made of dead trees, and my Kindle app satisfies when I just gotta have it right now, so this really doesn’t impact me much.
I guess I don’t understand complaints about the library delaying anything, though. In fact, I’m surprised that new release print editions are available the day of. I thought that whole “even writers gotta eat” thing would have delayed libraries getting their copies a bit just to pump sales figures, and I’m perfectly OK with that. Writers that don’t make money writing may find something else to do that does not involve telling me entertaining stories, so I’m pretty happy to pay for books and keep those people fed.
I love my library. I just never considered it an avenue for getting new releases for no money.
As an avid reader and library user, both physical and digital, I will fess up to an occasion where an exciting new book had a long waiting list and I did, in fact, purchase the ebook from Amazon out of eagerness / impatience.
That book was ‘Space Opera’ by Catherynne M Valente, which I first learned about on this site, and I loved it so much I bought a physical copy just to lend to friends. Since then I’ve read / listened to several more of her books from the library. I also purchased the entire Fairyland series on Kindle. And, the difference there was there again was there wasn’t a wait list for Six Gun Snow White and Radience, but the Fairyland books all involved waiting 2+ months to read.
All of which is to say, there is probably something to Tor’s data. While there are definitely readers who read library books exclusively for financial reasons (I mean, hey, that’s why the library is my first stop) and who prefer ebooks for reasons of disability (same here!) Tor is probably right that for hyped books, there are enough people whose plan B is “pony up and buy the ebook” rather than “wait patiently” or “read something else” when a book is unavailable at the library right away.
Now, there’s a ceiling to that: I probably wouldn’t buy more than, say, twenty books per year if I had zero library access; currently I buy maybe 12-15 in twelve months, and I check out easily over 100 from the library. There are absolutely authors who I first gave a shot to because their books were at the library and looked interesting, and I’ve since gone on to buy their other books. So overall I think libraries are good for authors. As is, you know, a generally literate society. But that doesn’t contradict the idea that short-term library release delays for new ebooks will probably result in more ebook purchases, given Tor’s expert data and my personal experience.
Nicely put John.
Hopefully people won’t blame libraries for the delay. Those who do have to realize that publishers and authors can’t survive without more people actually buying books, eBooks, audible books.
Wish you and Tor well in all ventures. You’re worth more than what you making. Hopefully you’ve decided this is your vocation and not something you’ll retire from once comfortable.
Looking forward to buying your books for many years.
P.S. Thank you for the acknowledgment awhile back that you were paying tribute to Iain Banks with some of your ships. You’re a class act.
I’m at a place in my life where I can afford to buy a book and don’t use the library. Often, I have the hardcover, the audible version -and- the ebook. That said, I know damn well that I am an outlier with privilege that the vast majority of people simply don’t have.
My opinion is that Tor will discover no or a negative impact on their ebook sales.
If they REALLY wanted to help their not-John-Scalzi authors AND bump up sales, they should institute a Free Library like Baen has. Pretty sure (Check Eric Flint’s analysis) that it has been proven that the existence of the Free Library has resulted in MORE sales, especially for the b-list authors, who suddenly see sales of their backlist go up.
Go even further and make their backlist available to the Public Libraries for a nominal 1 dollar per book. That might take the sting out of this latest policy.
I grew up as a library reader. I don’t think I was really aware of bookstores until I went to college (campus bookstore). All through college I was too poor to afford hardbacks, and ebooks were still 20+ years in the future. So it was paperbacks or the library for me. I can’t say that waiting was a great hardship.
It wasn’t until I became relatively affluent that I started buying hardbacks. Ebooks were still 10+ years in the future, so again waiting still wasn’t a burden.
Now there is this thing called Amazon.com was a thing (maybe you’ve heard of them, they are quite popular I understand). I am finally too jaded to deal with libraries. Waiting is finally a burden.
I usually drop the bucks on the ebook the week it comes out. If it is really good I will also try to get the print hardback. Mainly now I only get dead-tree books because I actually like the look of a library all of my own. I then haul these to Nebula/Hugo weekends to get Scalzi (or whoever) to deface the book by scrawling their name in it.
I don’t know how this’ll affect overall sales, but they’ll definitely lose sales to libraries.
I am someone who checks out a fair amount of library ebooks through the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries, and a big part of the process is recommending books for the library to purchase through OverDrive. The number of recommendations affects the number of copies the library purchases, and they’ll almost certainly get more recommendations for new releases than for a book that’s four months old, simply because most of us will have forgotten.
Example: when Naomi Novak’s Spinning Silver came out (published by Del Rey), I went to OverDrive, discovered the book hadn’t been purchased yet, and recommended it. Now the NYPL has 17 copies, because a lot of people put in recommendations.
Conversely, I went looking for Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars (published by Tor) and not only does the library not own it, it’s not even in the system, so I can’t recommend it. Will my fellow readers and I remember to come back in four months? Will they get the same number of recommendations in four months as they would have today? Will they buy as many copies in four months as they would have this month?
Guess I have an email to write.
“For the record, I’m still waiting to read Head On as an ebook from my local library, because the waiting list is very long. Not getting something right away is the price I pay for expecting it to be both free and convenient. Having an extra time cost from the publisher is annoying, but Tor knows that, and they’re hoping that it will sometimes be annoying enough that I’ll give them more money instead.”
This is interesting, because it shows that the impact of this policy will vary by author. In the big picture, the number of e-books available is small compared to the number of people who want to read the new novel by any high profile author. For a lower profile auther that may not be the case.
I don’t know what conclusion to draw from that. If it helps sales for lower profile authors it seems like a good thing. Ideally, I think publishers would not do this as a blanket policy and instead would give authers some say in when their e-books are available from libraries. But maybe that would have its own problems.
So, they are gonna release new works to theaters for 4 months, and only after that will folks be able to watch them for free on cable?
I think a lot of people forget libraries actually are book buyers too. There are almost 120,000 libraries in the US. Even if we assume only a fraction of those offer ebooks, that’s still quite a few books. Plus, for bigger name authors libraries will buy multiple copies. AND libraries already pay for the books multiple times–they don’t pay the price a consumer does for an ebook. The price is higher and then they only get a limited number of check outs before they have to repurchase. (Ebooks are not a great deal for libraries!) I suspect the comment above about how this will drive down sales TO libraries is on target. I’m open to seeing what Tor’s data shows. Perhaps they really will generate enough sales from individuals to offset the fewer copies libraries will buy. I definitely don’t think it’s an open and shut case though.
I wait almost that long for hard copy books from the library, so I don’t mind waiting four months for an eBook. I’m just grateful to get electronic library books. I lug so much stuff to work and books weigh my bag down even more, and it’s great to read on the commute.
Not surprising. MacMillan was already trying to price itself out of the library eBook market long before this decision. I can tell you as a public librarian responsible for selecting both print and electronic media that MacMillan’s leasing policies have been regressing for years. Right now I can order a hard copy of Redshirts from Ingram for $24.99 (plus a discount) or I can buy it on Overdrive for $40 (no discount) and have it expire in 52 checkouts or 2 years, whichever happen(ed) first. We bought 5 copies in hardback, all still in the system. Our copies of Redshirts expired. Since the first 6 months are where the bulk of circulations occur MacMillan is basically telling us to stop buying their product. We had already mostly obliged due to their absurd leases so /shrug. Seems like they would have figured out they are actively contributing to KU sucking all the oxygen out of the room but its all about those short term profits nowadays.
Man, if we ever needed a motto/slogan to go viral in this day and age, I think “Practice empathy, please.” would be the one. As for the topic at hand, I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of ebook lending to offer an opinion on that, but tangentially, I am of the firm opinion that libraries are a net good for society and should be cherished.
I’m curious as to Tor’s current eBook pricing strategy for libraries. Are they one of the publishers that charges the library 3-5 times what a private individual pays? If anything, I suspect they might find that they are selling fewer eBooks to libraries with this new pilot.
Thanks for the direct email to Tor/MacMillan, John.
Two comments I will be making to them as the person responsible for purchasing digital formats:
It costs us $60.00 to license Head On (just as an example) in ebook format through OverDrive, for the earliest of 52 checkouts or 2 years. Then we have to buy it again if we want to keep it available to our readers. On Amazon.com it’s $25.99, currently reduced to $13.99, for unlimited reads by a single consumer.
Also, by the time that 4 months rolls around, I won’t have Head On or any other previously released title in focus and therefore it won’t ever be licensed by us unless someone actively requests it, and I’m pretty sure that most of them will have forgotten it, too.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.
Who is lucky enough to live in an area where their public library is actually purchasing not-so-popular sci-fi books in e-book format? Must be nice! That certainly is not the case for my library system, and I live in a major metro area with (I think) a very good library system. My library system is likely to have e-books from authors like John Scalzi and Connie Willis, but any e-books from a sci-fi author less popular than that is not going to be carried. So making those books available to the library four months later isn’t going to matter, when they aren’t going to buy those e-books anyway.
I predict that Tor/Macmillan won’t see an uptick in e-book sales, and will eventually backtrack on this experiment. But I don’t blame them for trying it! Sure, as an avid library user and librarian, I’d love it if everything were always available to everyone all the time for free in perpetuity, but the world doesn’t work that way. This is a (relatively) new aspect of the Book Biz, and there’s not a lot of data out there–so why shouldn’t Tor/Macmillan go ahead and generate some data? If it costs them (in sales, or more likely in good will) they’ll figure it out soon enough and right the course. If it benefits them (more likely in sales this time), they’ll figure that out too. Publishers gotta eat.
(Wishing I could edit my previous tweet now) @Pianoman, this is a situation where smaller library systems in less major-metro areas may have the advantage over yours, because they enter into consortia with their peers. I currently tap into the e-audiobook collections of two statewide library consortia (my home state and that of my parents) and there’s very little I can’t get hold of. Although sometimes the hold list is ridiculous…I’m currently 74th in line (up from 113th) for one title with a 6-plus month wait.
@nonny asks above:
There’s a thing in US copyright law called the “right of first sale”: if I purchase a book, the copyright owner can restrict my right to copy the book, but they can’t claim any control over the physical book itself. So I am free to resell the book at a discount, share it with all my friends, give it to my local library, and so on, even though the publisher may wish that all these other people had to pay full price for their own copies.
(In some other countries, including the UK and Canada, libraries pay additional fees to publishers to compensate them for their lost revenue.)
Electronic books, for better or worse, don’t have this legal status.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable; at the same time, I think there’s a good case to be made that four months is too long or that there will be unexpected consequences.
I have found that in the Toronto library system for new releases it’s almost always quicker to get the hardcover than it is to get the ebook (unless you manage to jump on it early).
NYPL now has The Calculating Stars. They still aren’t showing Red Waters Rising. I recommended both for purchase, as physical books. Anyone can do that here: https://www.nypl.org/collections/nypl-recommendations/recommend-book
As to windowing paper books, that might be possible if publishers have special library editions (with tougher bindings and covers, say), but in general, the first sale doctrine means that anyone can buy a book and then lend it out regardless of what the author or publisher might wish. And thank goodness for that.
Anything that prevents my library from initially buying an e-book will pretty much keep us from ever buying that e-book, unless it turns out to be a sleeper title that gets hot 6-9 months down the road from a promotion on NPR or some such. Once the initial buzz dies down and demand falls, we won’t buy an e-book without significant prodding unless the price point is very attractive. We’ll simply buy more e-books from publishers that don’t make it hard to buy their product. I will wait to see what TOR/Macmillan discovers from this strategy, and hope they are wise enough to reconsider if it turns out they’ve shot themselves in the foot.
OK, a warning that this is going to ramble a bit but the topic hits close to home for a number of reasons as I work in the technology industry and my spouse is a librarian.
The key to this policy to me seems to come down to whether or not books are a commodity. Many of the comments have treated them as such. I’m not sure that is correct. A book by John Scalzi is not the same as a book by Stephen King is not the same as a book by H.G. Wells. I applaud Tor for experimenting in this area but digital publishing is still taking baby steps.
When the only way to get a book was as a physical object printed on a Gutenberg press costing an average of a year’s wages for a working person it is not surprising that (a) few were printed and (b) only the “mega sellers” (e.g., the Bible, Stephen King) were printed. We’ve since graduated to cheaper and cheaper modes of publishing until the cost of a new copy is effectively zero for a digital book. This actually gives consumers unparalleled choice in how to acquire a copy of a book they want to read compared to even 10 years ago. But it also makes it difficult to determine how to reward the efforts of the authors properly.
This policy step by Tor may make it difficult and/or annoying to people that want to read the latest King or Scalzi ‘hot off the presses’ but I am old enough to recall when that new work would only be available in hardcover form for many months at a 2014 adjusted cost of $100 (Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a general increase in consumer prices from 1970 to 2014 of over 500%; hardcovers back then for the major releases tended to cost $20-$30 eac); then in trade or quality paperback for about $50.00 (adjusted, based on $10 cost in 1970), and finally perhaps a cheap edition at maybe $15.00 (adjusted, based on $3). Now you can get that work as an ebook for $10-$15 right away, making it financially accessible to a much wider audience from day one.
As for borrowing, for popular works libraries used a service that rented multiple copies of bestsellers that the library would return when demand decreased to be re-sold, opening the shelves to the next bestseller. The library could meet the demand of the public without ruining the budget or ending up with large numbers of copies that never left the shelves. Unfortunately non-bestsellers got short shrift, in many cases never making it to the library. This compromised one of the core missions of a public library: making a wide range of works available to the taxpaying public. At least now ebooks allow libraries to accession a far greater range for the same cost as before.
My guess is that this policy will result in a modest increase in sales of bestselling authors but will not affect midlist or specialty authors’ works much. Those midlist ebooks (and their authors and publishers) may actually benefit from immediate release for library lending. People are less likely to wait 4 months to try a new author they’ve heard about. (Example: on the JoCo cruise a couple of years ago I heard Mary Robinette Kowal discuss her work. I had never read anything by her before so I promptly purchased a couple of ebooks and now read her religiously. I probably would not have done that if I had to wait 4 months, losing the author and publisher a revenue stream.)
What I would really like to see is a system that allows you to try a book for a limited time at a very low cost. I realize Amazon is experimenting with this, but so far it is unsatisfying. I read several hundred books a year, and am always hungry to try new authors, but will rarely spring for a couple of books by an unknown without some incentive (see Kowal example). Again, this requires de-commoditizing books and treating each author based on multiple factors. This probably cannot be done with a ‘one size fits all’ policy like Tor’s proposal. Maybe past sales and relative familiarity with the reading public can be used to come up with a sliding price and release policy. Stephen King’s next book has a 4 month delay, John Scalzi’s a 2 month delay, and a promising new author is available immediately for lending and also a one-time, short-term copy can be purchased for $0.79.
To sum up, John put it best by saying “Read widely! Try new stuff!” Any policy needs to fit both the financial requirements of the publisher and the desire to introduce the reading public to as many books as possible and induce them to try them.
Thank you for addressing this on Whatever. I appreciate your take on this.
Times are changing, chnaging times require change. Tor is trying, let’s giv ethem the benefit of douvt and see how it pans out.
Meanwhile, I migrated almost exclusively tp ebooks. I followed your advice and discovered fantastic e-comics with a new publishing house called Arlhaven. They really bring a new approach to ebooks, at least in regard to pricing and passing the “digital” cost savings to consumers.
Hope Tor follows their path.
I appreciate your thoughtful response, John, I really do. This reminds me of buying videos for the library many years ago, when the studios told us we could get a title right away for $100 (in the 80s!) or wait a month and pay half that. E-books are still so expensive or limited (see 28 loan limits, above) that we can only buy one e-book for every three paper copies we otherwise purchase. And we can’t ILL/borrow e-books from other libraries the way we can with print books, even in a consortium, so it’s like we have to own everything ourselves. Libraries are about SHARING, people! :-)
I also think that most library users will have no idea about Tor’s strictures and will assume that their library doesn’t purchase or highly value science fiction in their e-collections. They will buy Tor books online if they can afford to, or read the paper copy. So yes, I think it might improve sales, and Tor is a business after all. It just kind of screws libraries and their users.
The library where I work is unlikely to buy “old” ebooks.
Based on my own ebook purchasing behavior, I don’t think this is going to affect a whole lot. Most of the books I check out from the library are not typically the “I need to buy it when it’s first released because I love this author/series so much” books (unless I have cash flow difficulties). I look at the library’s new acquisitions periodically, notice when a book looks interesting, and put myself on the hold list to wait–I assume a fair amount of waiting built in with library ebook lending unless the book is backlist. I will also wait for price drops on books that look interesting but where I’m not already invested in the author/series. But I too am interested in the data Tor discovers from this.
This decision would be less upsetting to me if Tor had chosen to withhold its new publications in ALL formats. The decision to ban libraries from purchasing its e-books, and ONLY its e-books, on the day of release feels a little discriminatory. What about library patrons who need large print, or dyslexic-friendly fonts? Or those who can’t carry home a big, unwieldy stack of dead-tree books from the library, or hold one open with two good hands? E-books are an absolute godsend for certain readers, and denying them the chance to borrow a new book at the same time as all other library patrons just seems wrong to me.