ForeWord Reviews

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The Rise and Fall of Digital Independence and Self-Publishing

Gutenberg 2.0

Most public libraries are the next-to-last link in a distribution chain. In times past, the connection ran from author to agent to publisher to reviewer to distributor to library to reader. But in the last couple of years, the system has seen some changes. The Big Five publishers—HarperCollins, Random House/Penguin, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon and Schuster—account for more than half of most library print purchases. But now, three of them refuse to sell digital titles to libraries at all. Others have hiked the cost per ebook by as much as six times over the consumer price, and one now requires libraries to “buy” the book again after twenty-six checkouts, effectively redefining a purchase as a rental. Distributors such as OverDrive and 3M simply pass along these new restrictions.

These changes pose a major business problem for libraries, which have already found their book budgets significantly eroded both by the recession and price hikes.

But the publishing landscape is bigger than just the Big Five. Small and independent publishers, combined with self-published authors, now account for roughly twice as many new titles each year as the mainstream companies. Historically, neither of these content streams has been found very often in libraries due to a distribution problem, and this deficiency was compounded by a lack of reviews.

The purpose of the public library is to gather, organize, and present to the public the intellectual content of our culture. But in order to continue making that content accessible, it was clear that we needed to change our game.

At the Douglas County libraries, in Colorado, we decided that we needed to be able to manage our own digital content, not just rent it from someone else’s cloud on onerous terms. It took us 18 months and $100,000, but we have created such a system, now known internationally as “The Douglas County Model.” Already, it’s being replicated by other libraries at a cost closer to $6,000 and in a much shorter timeframe. Here’s how it works.

Patrons searching the Douglas County catalog can discover, in a single search, not only our traditional books, music, and movies, but nearly 35,000 ebooks we purchased over the past year. Once patrons locate a title, they have several options. If available, the book can be checked out. Then it can be read online, or stored in our own cloud to be downloaded to supported devices later (any Android, iOS, Windows, or post-Kindle Fire reader). If a book isn’t available, a patron can request it, and be placed in the queue. The item may also be previewed (up to 10 percent of the total). Finally—and this was a break with tradition—the patron can purchase the book on the spot. The system passes the patron along to an electronic bookstore.

How do publishers figure into the equation? In an effort to avoid costly contract negotiations that are hard to remember and enforce, we pose a simple Statement of Common Understanding. In brief, we request a library discount, promise to attach digital rights management to the file, restrict its use to one person at a time, buy additional copies based on demand, and provide a purchase link. In exchange, we ask for a share of any new sales.

All of our work, including the legal framework and the software we created, is open source and may be freely downloaded and used by any library. Visit evoke.cvlsites.org, and consider joining us.


Jamie LaRue has been the director of the Douglas County libraries, headquartered in Castle Rock, Colorado, since 1990. He is the author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges and wrote a weekly newspaper column for over 25 years. LaRue was named Colorado Librarian of the Year in 1998.