The publishing industry is large and powerful—by some accounts, it generates nearly $100 billion in revenue worldwide. The United States Department of Justice has accused big publishers of abusing that power in the past, by conspiring with each other to raise the price of e-books. More recently, Penguin Random House has been in the legal crosshairs for an alleged abuse of power, as the Justice Department sues to stop its proposed (and allegedly anticompetitive) acquisition of Simon & Schuster.
What would more concentrated power in the publishing industry mean for libraries? In recent years, publishers have blamed libraries for all manner of ills—claiming that they unfairly cannibalize sales, among other things—to justify the imposition of increasingly expensive licensing models. But as testimony in the Justice Department lawsuit has confirmed, the publishing industry isn’t the least bit ill: it’s “thriving,” with years of double-digit growth. And although the economics of the publishing industry was examined at trial in excruciating detail, the supposed threat of library lending was nowhere to be found; libraries weren’t mentioned at all.
What of the authors? The publishing industry often claims that its actions are necessary for the good of authors, but this case does not support such a claim. The Authors Guild has publicly opposed the merger, expressing its own concern about the extraordinary concentration of power in the publishing industry and how it could harm emerging and mid-list authors. Meanwhile, at trial, we learned that the vast majority of all published books are of this sort, selling very few copies. Of course, libraries are one of the few markets for such titles: buying them, preserving them, and ensuring they remain publicly available after their commercial life is over. Unfortunately, as the trial made abundantly clear—featuring, as it did, the CEO of Penguin Random House bragging about cutting author compensation for e-books—such matters are not high on the publisher’s priority list.
So what does this portend for the future of libraries? While the outcome of the trial remains unclear, the Association of American Publisher’s view of libraries could not be clearer: “Libraries are an important part of the copyright ecosystem as authorized distributors,” they recently said. That is the world the AAP hopes for: one where our public interest institutions, and our library professionals, are little more than “authorized distributors” of whatever is most profitable for the publishers. It should be no surprise, then, that libraries remain deeply concerned that the future envisioned by these publishers is in nobody’s interest but their own.