BY NICO VREELAND
On Wednesday, blogger Eric Hellman wrote this recap of an event at which Mamillan CEO John Sargent spoke (via). Sargent’s comments on libraries were quite distressing; he described borrowing library ebooks like this: “It’s like Netflix, but you don’t pay for it. How is that a good model for us?”
Yikes. Sargent’s anti-library-ebook argument is essentially that borrowing physical books from a library is a major drag, so people don’t do it so often. Borrowing ebooks is super easy, and that will bring the publishing industry to its knees.
Hellman, who actually asked Sargent the library question at the event, says this: “he has gaps in his knowledge of libraries.” I would put it in slightly stronger terms: it sounds like Sargent hasn’t borrowed a library book in 20 years, if ever.
Sargent doesn’t know about online card catalogs, which allow you to order physical books and have them waiting for you at the branch of your choosing. He thinks ten people reading a book will destroy it. He thinks anybody can get a card to any library in the country (in fact, you have to be at least a state resident, as I found out last year when I talked to Rachel Martin, a librarian at the Seattle Public Library). Basically, Sargent doesn’t know much about checking out books.
More troublingly, he seems to see libraries as foolhardy businesses that aren’t charging (and aren’t tithing out publishers) enough. Personally, I see free access to public libraries as a fundamental human right in an industrialized nation. It’s a sizable difference of opinion.
And I’m noticing something else: the more Sargent talks, the more dictatorial and greedy he sounds.
When Sargent led the charge against $9.99 ebooks, I thought it was a pretty silly move, given that the publisher will make less money on each Macmillan-priced ebook, and history tells us they will sell fewer books. It’s a lot to give up just to maintain price control, no?
Now he’s making noise about libraries, and he’s shown us that he’s just crazy enough to act on his beliefs. Imagine being a Macmillan author and hearing that your books will no longer be available in libraries because John Sargent wants to get paid a rental fee every time somebody reads one.
The first problem I have with this is that Sargent wants the world to update its business models only in ways that directly benefit him. He wants everyone to change how they treat ebooks, because ebooks are completely different entities than paper books. Except for, you know, how much they should cost.
In a blog entry today, Sargent says that ebooks should cost about the same as paper books because “the physical cost of the book has never been the greatest component of cost” and also because “publishers still need warehouses, infrastructure, and all the other legacy costs of the business.”
Even in just those two comments, Sargent shows that he wants readers to forget some of publishing’s business tactics (like making a cheap, spiffy-looking hardcover to trick people into paying more), but not other ones (like the “legacy costs of the business”). It’s just flatly hypocritical, and whenever a salesman is that obviously contradictory, it means either he’s stupid or he thinks you are.
My bigger problem with Sargent’s anti-library comment is that it misconstrues the basic societal role of public libraries, and it grossly ignores the benefits of an ebook-driven library revival.
One surprising thing I learned in that interview with a librarian is that Seattle Public Library’s online division is its most popular “branch.” Instead of bemoaning the fact that more people are using the library because of ebooks, Sargent should be celebrating it. If more people read, that’s a good thing, especially for publishers.
To put it in half-assed business terms: the popularity of library ebooks increases the potential audience for the publishing industry, and also increases that audience’s enthusiasm and appetite for books.
To phrase it more eloquently, here’s a passage from the Seattle Public Library’s Mission Statement:
We strive to inform, enrich and empower every person in our community by creating and promoting easy access to a vast array of ideas and information, and by supporting an informed citizenry, lifelong learning and love of reading.
Sargent’s words again: “How is that a good model for us?”