This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is James LaRue. He was the long-time director of the Douglas County Colorado libraries and he’s now an independent library consultant. You can find him online at jlarue.com.
James LaRue, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Steve, pleasure to be here.
You were at Douglas County as a director for more than 20 years and now you are off as an independent consultant. What made you decide to want to go off into independent consulting at this point in your career?
It kind of happened very organically. It started off about three years ago, I said, “Oh, I really enjoy public speaking and it seems like we’re entering a period of professional development, kind of a tipping point,” so I said, “I wonder if I can do a keynote talk once every other month.” And it turned out that it was pretty easy and then the next year I was doing two a month and then last year I did three a month and I thought you know, this is starting to look like my real job and I decided I was having so much fun with that, I was getting so interested in these national and international issues, that I decided that was where my passion had shifted to. So, as of January of this year, after 24 years of the Douglas County libraries, I decided to hang out my own shingle.
And what kind of services do you provide for your clients? And what sort of value do you hope to bring to them?
I guess the, I think of it this way. Again, we are at a tipping point. This is without doubt the most exciting time in the history of our profession and I think that either we can step up and we can engage with our communities, we can really stay on top of these trends, we can really build our organizational capacity through leadership development and then we can survive and thrive. If we don’t do those things I think that libraries will wind up losing both mind share and support. So, the services come down to, I help people do long age planning, I help them figure out ways to better connect with their communities, I do a lot of speaking and writing about what I think are the key trends in librarianship and beyond that my dance card is open to the universe. I was fascinated, I wound up in the space of about three, four months going to Miami, Alaska and Australia and what I noticed was that these issues are, and a year before that I was in Moscow, and so it seems like there’s a couple of issues here that are coming out with this rise of e-publishing that are truly transformative and I realized it’s not just about what’s happening in one town, or county, or state, or even region in the United States. This is an international librarian issue and I definitely want to be part of that.
Yeah and I’m going to get to that in a little bit cause I want to spend most of our interview probably talking about the e-publishing stuff. But I did want to talk about a couple of other things first that you did while you at Douglas County. And one of them is the idea of managing, encouraging the talent of your staff and promoting with, from within and, I mean occasionally I think it’s good to bring in outside people, but really encouraging the people you already have on your staff and using the talents that they already have.
Yeah, and I, and all this comes back to, I had a, a library board member who used to be in charge of organizational development for a large corporation and that year she was the head of the personnel committee which meant she did my annual evaluation. One of the questions she asked me was what are you doing about succession planning and my first thought was, “Uh oh, they’re trying to get rid of me!” And she said, “No it’s not like that at all,” that the way organizations should work is like this. In the ideal world you have a governing body that is thoughtful, that is looking ahead and says what are the key strategies for our organization and once they pick those, they say do we have a CEO who can get us there. And one of three things is true. Either you’re a yes and she says, and you absolutely have the skills to meet the needs so that’s good. A second option might have been no but you’re within 18 months of getting there so that gives us a good planning window to help you get up to speed, to move the organization where it should be. Or three, no, you’re not going to get there, in which case we may have the wrong CEO. So she said good news, we have the right CEO, but now who’s within 18 months of your skill set? Because the more people we have within the organization who can move us forward, the faster we’ll grow. And I found myself thinking, boy that’s a really fascinating way to think about HR within an organization. That it’s not just about hi, what are you interested in, what are your, what do you kind of want to investigate, what training do you want. Instead it’s an inventory of the skills and abilities of the organization to say how can we, align ourselves with this strategic vision can help everybody. From the first person you hire, all the way up to the director to get more and more skilled in precisely the abilities that we need to succeed. And so, then I met with all the people who reported to me and I said who’s within 18 months of your job and they said, well you mean you want to pick a successor? And I said no, I want us to build organizational capacity. I want, whenever anybody leaves, I want them, I want to be able to look around and say there are at least three or four people in the organization who are ready to go. And while that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always hire from within, it means that you’re building a very solid pool of candidates who are probably going to get the job cause they know what you’re looking for.
And I feel like that helps with staff morale as well, to know that they’re being encouraged by the organization itself.
Well that’s right, but it’s not a promise to say that we’re always going to hire you. It’s a we are always going to hire the best candidate, but we’re going to help you try to be a best candidate. And it was interesting. I, as I started doing this, I would talk to my direct reports and I would say I’m interested in being a director. And many of them said yes and I’d say okay, great, so let’s talk about what can you do to be visible within the community. What can you do to be a leader within the profession. What can you do to manage a large project. How can I get you in front of the board to get a sense for what that’s like. And what happens, of course, is that very soon they, I was able to say, you know, you’re ready to be a director and I’m very proud of the fact, of people I mentored like that, 6 have gone on to become very good directors.
And do you feel like that’s an important part of being a director? Is that mentoring relationship?
I think it is a fundamental responsibility of the job. And again, I know that sometimes people say well why would I want to train up somebody who’s my competition. And the answer is because it’s not about you, it’s about the organization and the more people you have and the more skilled they are, the better you connect with your community. The quicker you spot the opportunities and trends and just the more effective you become as a librarian.
And so do you think, did you have at Douglas County a good internal training department that would help encourage these skills and find, help people find the skills that work best for them?
Yeah, we really did. Some years ago, back around 1992 or something, I did a all staff day and I said you know, help me to identify the key concern that you have as staff members. And this was still kind of the early automation age and people said well we need computer training and we hired somebody who’s kind of a media services person, who was working on her Masters in instructional design and she said, Missy Shock is her name, very, very capable woman, and she put together a top-notch training crew who first tackled all the technical skills and then over the past several years has gotten more into these leadership crucial conversations, communications, social style, what I think of as leadership skills.
Another thing I wanted to discuss before we get into e-publishing a little more is the post you did about, I think 2008 was when it was, on the, your response to the challenge to Uncle Bobby’s wedding book. And I, I remember reading that at the time and being really inspired because I think what was important was you communicated the library’s values and why the library’s making this decision, but you never pandered to the person that was challenging the book and I guess for the listeners could you, could you kind of describe what happened there and how you responded?
Well that’s it, Colorado has this very peculiar history about the relationship between politics, gay rights and libraries. And part of that was because just south of Douglas County is Colorado Springs where Focus On The Family and some other groups, very early, very quickly adapted this anti-gay agenda and passed various kinds of registration and it become one of the defining cultural wars issue for politics around here. And somewhere around 2008 we got a copy of this book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, which, if you haven’t seen it, is a marvelous book by Sarah Brown and starts off with Chloe is a young guinea pig, this is a children’s book and her favorite uncle, Bobby, is in love and he’s getting married, but he’s getting married to another boy guinea pig.
And so the concern has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of these guinea pigs, it had to do with Chloe’s fear that she was going to lose her favorite uncle. And they kind of work through that and the book was charming and very, very well done. And, so then I got a challenge that was both public and private, it was private in the sense of a private letter to me suggesting that we put this book in a parenting difficult issues kind of area and it was quite polite and at the same time she also wrote a very desk-thumping letter to the editors demanding the immediate removal of this and saying she was outraged and didn’t she have the right to come into a library and not have to see this book and explain it to her seven year old. And one of the things that I learned from previous encounters that resulted in my writing of a book about intellectual freedom, The New Inquisition, was that ultimately you can’t just appease people and you don’t want to just argue with them and the purpose of the public library is to gather, organize and present to the public the intellectual content of our culture. That’s our job. And I think that it’s very important to be able to stand up to people in the community and to say without any aggressiveness or rancor, we understand our position and we understand that sometimes people will dislike the things that we see, but we are reflecting our culture, this is our responsibility, it is our mission, it is our charge. And I believe fundamentally, not only in the importance of intellectual freedom, but also treating people well. And so it was important to me that I respond to this complaint in a way that if it was spread around by this person, and I suspected that she would be distributing my response, but I was absolutely clear about answering every one of her points, but I treated her with the utmost respect and that I underscored the significance of the value of the public library in contributing to that job, reflecting the role of our culture.
And did you ever hear back from her, sort of in a personal way?
No, I never did and that was sort of the interesting pattern, is that I would get these written challenges, often quite hot under the collar and I would think about it and I would write back and I would again try to be very judicious about it and I very rarely ever heard from people again. Sometimes I’d run across someone at a party and they would say, oh yeah I complained about a book and I got your letter back. And although I didn’t agree with you, I could see that you thought about it and I could see that you responded and sometimes that’s the best you can hope for. The part that I find fascinating and I think people respected this, is that it is not the job of the library to make the world safe for children. You know, we can’t, and let me rephrase that. Many people believe that the library should only have for children very nice, innocuous, innocent things that put off as long as possible any knowledge of the darkness of the world and my belief is that that’s not the job of the library. We’re not supposed to build a protective bubble around people. We’re supposed to say, you are curious about the world, come in and it never gets any safer than reading about it. You can have an opportunity to explore the world and to find out what’s happening and to think about it and to have discussions with your parents and discussions with librarians to say I’m trying to see what’s shifting in our culture and the other thing that people too often forget is that great change, when it happens in our culture, doesn’t come from the mainstream, it comes from the fringe. And so of course it’s going to be upsetting when you first read it. I think back to the 50s and early 60s when civil rights was on the rise.
And for a while it was very difficult to find James Baldwin and the black writers in some of our libraries because people had just started ignoring them. And then eventually this fringe literature moves into the mainstream and it redefines the whole other society. So libraries can’t shut their doors to the interesting and disturbing things that may be happening on the fringe because that’s our early alert system for change in our society. And I want to underscore something else too, is that these people are not our enemies. So you have someone who, she takes her child to the library, they’re taking out a lot of books, she’s paying attention to what her child reads, they talk about this. This is not an enemy, this is a friend, this is someone who already is part of our eco-system and they deserve a respectful hearing.
And then before we, I’m going to jump into e-publishing stuff here in a second, but the last thing I wanted to ask about specifically, from Douglas County, was if you could tell me, is there, is there one thing from your Douglas County days, most people I think know you particularly well because of the stuff you guys did with e-books, but is there something unrelated completely to e-books that you were really proud of? A program that you did at Douglas County that was successful?
Yeah, I think that the other significant thing that we’ve done, that again is defining for the future of librarianship is something that I call community reference. Some people talk about it as embedded reference, but I like community reference better. And the idea is that as our organization changed and we adopted, we were one of the first adopters of the RFID base self check systems and that change rippled through our organization, so the circ department basically was gone, we had a new position that instead of being clerks, they were paraprofessionals involved in merchandising and building displays and working with the people within the building. And then our reference librarians got pretty nervous about that and they said well do we even need reference librarians any more? We’re noticing that on 15% of the questions that come to the desk actually need somebody with an MLS to answer them. So, are we obsolete now? And I said, this, now that you have the time, now that we’ve got some other assistance with parapros to cover desk hours, I need you to leave not only the desk, I need you to leave the building and let’s go out and do, in a systematic way, try to discover the specific concerns within our community, questions that it would never occur to anybody to take to the library. We have to go to them. And so I said to all my branch managers, I not only expect you to know what’s going on in your community, I expect you to be leaders, civic leaders within the community, not just attend the occasional chamber of commerce meeting, but serve on its board, be the president of the chamber of commerce and I think that’s, as we tried to redefine this idea of librarian as someone who catalogs the community, somebody who really understands what the issues are that the community is facing. It takes those information, interview and research skills and doesn’t just, you know, here’s a list of resources, but answers people’s questions that define the future of the, of the town. I think that’s very powerful, I think that’s the future of reference and I was very proud of the, kind of a camaraderie of the young librarians who stepped up to that role, got out in the community and really made a difference.
And do you think it’s important for libraries to kind of constantly be on the lookout and not be afraid to completely upend their staffing model and just completely, like that, I’m just saying, okay, we’ve got this new technology that lets us do this, frees us time to do this, we need to just completely redo our jobs. Do you think libraries are, in general, reluctant to do that kind of big change? Or should you encourage that kind of thing?
Well I just look at it like this, it’s not so much that I’m advocating change, or experimentation just for the sake of experimentation. But I think if you take a look at some of the fundamental business issues of our profession, it was clear that the role of the reference librarian was changing. And so do you sit there passively and just say, okay, I only need a reference librarian 15% of the time, oh well. Or do you say, we have a remarkable skill set in these librarians and we have an opportunity to increase the value that we provide to our constituents. Move away from waiting passively behind a desk to actively engaging the community. And I found that because I’m such a believer in the importance of the MLS, the importance of librarianship, it was an opportunity for us to greatly expand our ability to make our communities better. Why wouldn’t we want to do that. And I have this theory that when you come up with some wild idea, typically your staff divides into thirds. One-third says I’ve been waiting all of my life to do that, thank god, praise be, the day has come. And then a middle-third says well, I’m a little worried about it, but it’s not what I trained for, but I’ll give it a shot, hold my hand, give me some training and I’ll support me, and we’ll see how that goes. And one-third says over my dead body. And the problem with many libraries, I think one of the most significant problems is the failure on the part of supervisors and management to confront behavior that holds back the organization from success. And I think that we need to find ways and one of the focuses again of my training and speaking is to help people have these conversations in a way that again isn’t trying to berate anybody, isn’t calling them stupid, but just says our survival depends upon the skills in this direction and you are being paid to help us do that. And if you don’t want to do that, well you have a decision to make because we’re not going to pay you to fight us.
Yeah and I think this is the point where some people, you either go into the oh libraries are dead, or libraries have a whole new future. And so that you, that’s sort of the path that you have. I mean cause if you think you’re the other, you’re the last third, then you probably just think libraries are dead for the future, but I am optimistic and I think we can find new paths to keep doing our mission.
Yeah, there is no doubt in my mind. Just looking at the success of some of these kinds of projects where, and I remember for a while we have this kind of fight for status within the building. I have an MLS, I’m a paraprofessional, gee which one of us is the more professional. And I found myself thinking, what an absurd waste of time and talent. Why are we fighting for status with each other? Let’s get out there and fight for status for the library. We’re on the same team, and if we have skills, we’ll get them to building that enable people to do a fantastic job as paraprofessionals, wonderful, and if we have people with these other skills, to say let’s learn how to facilitate groups, let’s show them how to do a group reference interview, to get clear about that question, come back and not only do the research, but show up at that meeting and say here’s the answer to the question you were asking. That’s powerful stuff. And as I watched the business community, or the not-for-profit community just be blown away by this level of service, this is the future and it’s a, it’s a bright future.
Yep, exactly. And one of the ways into the future is getting into e-books, e-publishing. Do you remember when you first got Douglas County into e-books? And, I mean, was there a moment when you were like, oh yes, this is, we’re getting into this [laughs].
So, like a lot of libraries, we had signed up for the early end of the Overdrive and had gone with a couple of contract changes that I wasn’t really watching, so there wasn’t a whole lot of use of Overdrive for a long time. Before then we had been involved in Net Library where you could check out a book and read it on your computer screen, but not very many people had chosen to do that. Well somewhere around, what would it be, 2008 is the beginning of the tipping point, where people showed up the day after Christmas with their new devices and said please make this work. We found ourselves in the tech support business, we began to see that there was this rising demand for it. And in 2010 Overdrive went back to the state of Kansas and they were, they said, well we’re gonna change your contract, we’re going to increase the price by something like 700% over four years and Jon Blomberg, who’s the state librarian at Kansas said well you do understand there’s a recession on and we have actually less money and they said well, that’s the way it is. And she said, actually no, I went back here and looked at my contract and I see that there’s this clause that if I leave Overdrive, I can transfer the content with publisher permission to another server. And I said, oh yeah, I remember that, and then I asked to look at the contract with Overdrive and I had missed that change, where I discovered that Overdrive had very quietly and without calling any attention to it and shame on me for not seeing it, that we no longer owned our content, we were only leasing the access to it. And then again at the end of 2010 I was looking at some of our circulations statistics and saw that for the first time in over two decades, where we had seen often double digit growth in circulation every single year for 20 years, it was flattening and falling just a little bit and I thought well what’s the difference here. And as I started looking at that, as librarians have already done, we were shifting to support a new format, but this new format of the e-book was far more expensive and I realized we had without any discussion in the profession, at the end of 2010, given up three fundamental things. We sacrificed ownership of our content, so you be the vendor, you lose the book. We had sacrificed without any discussion a long-standing discount that libraries have always gotten as volume purchasers who typically get 40-45% off of the print, but now we were spending under the Harper Collins model, and had to buy it again after 26 books, under the Random House model we were spending as much as 600 times the retail cost of the book. Absolutely not sustainable and it was eroding our purchasing power. So a fundamental attack on our ability to do the business that we were constituted to do. And then the third one, and also an important one, is that there was a development of all these silos. We had given up integration. The purpose of the catalog is to do one-stop shopping. I’m going to go and find out everything the library has so I can use it. Well if you have an Overdrive silo and you have the 3M silo and you have an Ebscohost and you have an, you know, Baker and Taylor silo, how many, how much patience can we expect our patrons to have? To load, just find out whether the library has access to a book.
So I took those three business problems, loss of ownership, loss of discount, loss of integration and said we need a solution for that. Didn’t find anything I liked in the marketplace and said well, maybe it’s time for the libraries to do this ourselves. So, that was kind of the first step into the process of software development, to say if you don’t like what the marketplace is doing, then it’s time to create something new. And so that’s the beginning of what I think of as our entrepreneurial librarianship.
And why do you think libraries keep giving up these ownership rights? I mean because we kind of did it, academic libraries especially did it with all the journals that they had back then too and now we’re doing it, public libraries are doing it with e-books and other libraries obviously too. But, why do you think libraries, do we just not want to read contracts? Why do you think that that, this, cause it seems like such an important thing to the sort of the soul of our profession, but it’s something we sort of just don’t fight on.
Yeah, you know, and I guess there’s a, a continuum of responses here with the most generous one is that when we adapted journals it was such an improvement to get full text index and everything and the magazines could never be ripped off and the access was just great, we didn’t have to shelve them any more and it’s like the business model, seemed reasonable, it seemed like it was a pretty good trade. Well very rapidly over the space of the next 10, 15 years, we saw the creation of these journal monopolies and the bundling into the big evil friend academics and suddenly not only had we sacrificed ownership, but these new monopolies meant that people were driving up the cost and taking larger and larger sections of their library budget. So, even if we were just kind of naïve the first time, there’s no excuse for being naïve the second time. We could see where that was going to lead. Most of the time librarians that I run across are very service-oriented, they have this kind of not-for-profit mentality, but in the wider world and in the publishing word, they have very much a for-profit mentality, so we’ve got to learn to understand the motivation, speak the language, and be a little more alert about what’s going on.
And do you think that libraries can, should be investing the talent to create these platforms ourselves? Or should we be finding other companies, start ups and things like that to work with to do this? Or, I mean, do you think it should be the home-grown kind of thing? Like an Evergreen kind of thing for ILS and library kind of things?
I think that, I think that’s all of the above. You know, there’s nothing evil about vendors at for-profit enterprises. My concern was there was just nothing in the market that struck me as fair. And with the rise of e-publishing and this is such a profound challenge to the long-standing economics of publishing. As I said at one of these ALA meetings, I think it was 2010 then as well, maybe it was 2011 I think, somewhere 2011, I was going around with our new platform trying to buy books and I was astonished by the arrogance of the publishers who would say things like you know, we’ll figure out a model and we’ll let you know what it is. Now I was, well okay, let me think about this, when I wrote my book, I sold it for forty bucks, the price set by Libraries Unlimited and I make $4, so 10% of the revenue is fairly typical in the market.
But, if I go to CreateSpace on Amazon.com and I publish a book there, there’s no intermediary. If I agree to sell it for ten bucks, I make seven. Well how, once that happens and the comment I made at ALA that said a bullet has passed through the brain of commercial publishing and we’re just waiting for the body to fall. If you’re a content creator, why would you give away 90% of revenue when without you there’s no book at all. Now that isn’t to say that publishers don’t add value, they can and they do, but not as much as you might think. Not 90% added value. And so I think that publishers have realized that this is a creative destruction model. This is just like the music industry where suddenly you don’t need all of these middle men. And libraries have to kind of lift their heads up out of the existing business relationship with the distributor and say does this whole chain of logistics, this whole chain of distribution still make sense. And if not, is there a way to shorten the chain, to save our money, to get a little closer to the creator of that content. And find a way to become partners with them, instead of passive victims. So you may notice the trend here, I don’t think people are supposed to sit there quietly behind a desk waiting for someone to come and I think that in the acquisitions department, you don’t just say oh, well we do whatever our distributor tells us to do. We have to be players in this marketplace.
So can you talk a little bit about what you guys decided to do in Douglas County at that point? And then also, some other business models that you see nowadays, like Unglue It and things like that, that you find encouraging.
Yeah, I guess I, our model is very simple. We said okay, how was it Overdrive and 3M are able to provide these things? Actually 3M got the idea from us. We called them to say we have a business model, we’re looking for some displays, they got interested and they sort of took our ideas and built up this sort of competing company to Overdrive. But our model was based on the idea that there were contents servers. One was an Adobe content server that added digital rights management for anything that was important. So, commercial content that people wanted copy protection. They said fine, we’re good with one person using it at a time, we will purchase additional copies on the basis of demand, we require a discount, we’re not going to buy it if you can’t offer it, we will host the file, so that’s the digital, that’s the mainstream content. We built a second server for creative commons and public domain where we basically mirrored the Project Gutenberg to offer all those titles. A lot of new content is coming out where people don’t want DRM attached to it and that’s okay, there’s not reason for us to pay Adobe every time we check it out. And then over that, the umbrella uniting those two servers was a tweaked version of the Open Source discovery layer ViewFind. And we said we’re going to hire a programer to integrate this content. And so that gave us a solution to all three of these things. We were buying the content, we were getting a discount and we were integrating it. And it was still very much like kind of a print model. So, we’ve made a lot of headway with that. At this point over 900 in prints, over 45,000 titles and edging up to a little greater than the percentage of our collection, so we’ve got about 6% of our total, about 5% of total holdings and about 6% of our circ. But that’s still nowhere up to the 20% of the demand among our, Douglas County patrons. 20% of them would prefer e-books, we still don’t have enough content to support that.
So now let’s shift over to some of the other experiments. A lot of what Unglue.it is doing, I think it’s brilliant, the ideas that let’s sell something to libraries and every time you buy it, we are satisfying a contract with the author to say, Steve, how much do you think this book that you just wrote is worth? And you say boy if I could make $3,000 I’d be a happy man. So we sell up to $3,000 of that, you get the money and then the book moves from traditional copyright protection over to creative commons. It’s still yours, you still own it, no-one can claim that they did, but you’ve been paid and now it can be downloaded as many times as people want all the way around the world and we’re shortening that time, we’re changing the status of the book to something that can be archived and distributed widely. Many, many authors, all they want to do is to be read. They would like to be able to make a living out of it, but very few authors under the traditional system, or even under the future system are making money in that. But this helps you find an audience.
So, I like that approach very much and then as I spoke at the American Libraries Live recently I was talking with Yoav Lorch of the Total Boox B-O-O-X and they’re not, this is very interesting too, they talked to publishers and get the entire catalogs, everything is up there. You can browse through their application, go to their website and say okay, I’ve just downloaded 250 books and they’re mine forever. And so that cost nothing to anybody, not to you as a patron, not to the library that hosts this, but when you start reading then the deal is it checks in with the server to say this is the percentage to of the book that you’ve read and then it charges the library a percentage of the total value of the retail. So, if I read 10% of the book and stop, it only cost me 15 cents or something, the library only pays that, so it’s a, it is truly a metered reading experience in some ways. The advantages, it’s on my device as long as I want to have it there, it doesn’t expire, I only pay for what I read, there’s and there’s as many people as want to read it simultaneously is okay because the company’s still making money either way. And so that’s something that kind of, it’s a good experiment, it leverages the advantage of the digital format and we’ll find out what that means for library budgets and how popular it is and how many publishers will sign up, but my mantra these days and I say it a lot, this is an age of experimentation. You know, when you have a fundamental technological shift, you have to try stuff and nobody knows right now what’s going to work. Overdrive got a lot of mine share because they were first with their experiment, but it’s not the only experiment and I would strongly encourage librarians not only to look around for vendors trying to do something new, but say well what can we try that’s new? What can we do that creates something that secures our brand and our purpose, which is to provide content to the public.
And do you think, I know a lot of people, number one like Overdrive because they work with Amazon and so you can just still use all their stuff on the Kindle. But, what people don’t like about Amazon necessarily is because they’re taking away your, they’re taking the statistics, I mean they’re keeping it for themselves. Do you think those kind of, and obviously other issues with Amazon, but do you think getting those statistics from e-books, assuming they’re, the privacy, everything is stripped out of, for privacy issues, that statistics can be useful to libraries, like the time spent reading a page and other kind of aggregate data. Can that be valuable for libraries?
Well let’s, let’s, now we kind of skimmed over the privacy question and it’s an important one. As I, as I think about the two fundamental values of librarianship. One of them is intellectual freedom and access to everything and the other one is confidentiality. And I think that just handing this experience over to a large corporation as is already demonstrated that it does some things that are kind of iffy ethically, we need to be thoughtful about that and I, I think that that’s a significant problem of Overdrive. The notion that we have to support Kindle readers is also something we should tease out as a business issue. When we first started providing books from Overdrive, probably 80, 85% of our e-book readers were Kindle readers and now it’s less than 40% and they’re not even making just the plain Kindle anymore, you know, it’s, there’s not much demand for it, people want tablets and if it’s a tablet, it doesn’t have to be specific to the multi-format which is proprietary. So again I strongly encourage librarians to say we don’t have to passively accept these proprietary lock-ins on behalf of vendors, we can insist that it’s an open standard, that it’s epub because the way that, part of where platforms are changing, they’re going to be able to consume those e-books.
But, let’s go back to this idea of Total Boox. So, how fascinating is it as a publisher to say, okay, we’re producing this series of books by this author and we sold the hundred thousand copies and the what, like what was one of the best sellers, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History Of Time, became a bestseller but nobody read it, right. Really dense, difficult and kind of, it was a tough book, an important book but a tough book and I think that we may find that there is some both positive and negative pressure. Right now, we track circulation but we don’t know what percentage of our books are actually read. We just know how many people took it home with them and I’m sure that there’s some interesting stuff there, the potential for abuse is great. We say, Steve, we really liked your paranormal romance, but what happens in your last three books everybody quits on page 40, you know, so you’re, the pacing is too slow here, maybe either add a sex scene for have a bomb go off and so you could wind up a very formulaic fiction being dictated by percentages of people that read. So, there’s, like every new technology, statistics could be useful, they could be abused, libraries are swarming in data right now but we don’t do very much lift. So just data by itself is neither good nor bad.
And to go back to that Amazon thing real quick, I wonder if a lot of times, because Overdrive is so popular because of that, sometimes is another thing, like what we were talking about with the journals, that it’s such a convenient thing and we want to and it’s a service model thing and that oh, our customers are asking us for it so we want to do it and so we’re kind of compromising ourselves again because, well we want to, we want to give it our patrons and everything, everything that they want, but compromising ourselves at the same time.
Well that’s right, you know, and so again, as we said, the model is good, but we’re just trying to satisfy what our patrons are asking for. But, by doing it too quickly, by doing it thoughtlessly, what that means is that we don’t have as much money to spend. We can’t buy these books, we can’t own them, we can’t integrate it, we don’t own the user data, all those things in fact are not a good strategy to serve the public because we’re giving away the store. You know, one of the things that I find fascinating is that I remember when I first bought a Kindle for my wife and I was trying to set it up for her.
I spent like a hundred bucks in half an hour because it was so damn easy and it’s one of these things where you start to contrast the ease of using some of the products online versus the difficulty, the awkwardness, the bulkiness of library interfaces and so I think that trying to team up and be a lot more vocal, a lot more insistent as library readers first, that kind of initiative to say look, we need to have something that makes sense, that has this functionality and either our vendors are going to create it for us, or we’re going to start trying to team up with software developers to design it ourselves.
Yeah and it can be frustrating sometimes, I know because the publishers even admit that a lot of that is because they’re asking for that, they even have their term “friction” for it, they know, they want to make it hard so it’s kind of, it’s so frustrating for the big five to deal with them cause they’re sort of, I think they’re trying to find their own future there and it doesn’t really match what we want for our future in e-books.
Well, you know, and they’re right to be afraid, but the whole notion of friction is just so stupid, I have difficulty taking it seriously. It’s like okay so you want us to base our business model on customer inconvenience, right. You think that’s the way to the future. I mean that’s just insane, that’s just crazy.
So, I know you’ve had a lot of success getting self-published titles at Douglas County into the collection, do you, how do you see, I know you worked with, I’m blanking on the site now, oh Smashwords to bring in some of their collection. How do you deal with the collection development issues of that? Like, how do you know, I don’t know, there’s just so much self published stuff out there, how do you know what’s “good.”
Yeah, I mean the, all the ways that we have developed the as a profession to serve as gatekeepers, to try to identify the quality of the material before we buy it just break down, you know. So, and I should say that in the attempt on the part of Douglas County libraries to build the collection, they deliberately divided it into thirds. One-third was the mainstream stuff still bought from Freedom and Overdrive. One-third of it was working with the surge of the independent and small publishers who are now producing as many books as the mainstream was, so this is a huge new growth in content that most libraries don’t know anything about. And self-publishing is just the last third of that. It’s a amazing to me how rapidly this has changed. If you were to say 10 years ago what do you think of when you think of self-publishing, you think of vanity presses, you think of poorly edited, poorly written first-time authors, you know, typographical mistakes, grammatical mistakes, poor layout, just sloppy. Well it’s not like that any more. Now we’re seeing that, was it two years ago 16% of the New York Times 100 best sellers were self-published and established authors. At the end of last year 50% of e-books sold were self-published. So this is in all the, you know the rise in quality’s happened very quickly. But, and this one of the things again I touched on when discussing this about Total Boox, at present we buy stuff that has reviews, so this is kind of a why it is that one person’s opinion is going to be better than the reader, or better than their own opinion, we don’t know, but you take off the reviews, again there’s a bunch of reviews here and a negative review says good for larger collections, okay, it’s not a negative review.
But what do you do when now there are, you know, an estimated more than half a million self-published titles every year, that nobody can put together enough reviews to do that. So how do we make it possible for people to find them? And I think that we haven’t figured it out yet. We need to more vigorously engage our communities to say help us make sense of this. We’re going to bring in some things on spec to find out what our community thinks about them. We’ll try to track those statistics to say okay, this author looked promising, our community hated him, we’re not going to buy him any more, we’re going to look for something else and I think that we can’t just look to external validating resources, we have to re-engage with the community and say the world just got three times bigger for intellectual content, will you help us sort it out. And so it flips the collection development model on its head. Instead of saying we’re going to buy what we know is good, say we’re going to try to give you as much stuff as we can and you tell us what’s worth keeping and what we want more of.
I, I encourage people to go back and listen to the American Libraries Live that we were part of that was talking about e-books and was recorded during PLA and one thing that was brought up during that, and I wonder if you can give your thoughts on it, there’s, one of the other people on the panel was an audio books publisher. And they made the point that there are no successful audio self-publishers at this point because of the cost. Because you have to hire an actor or at least someone who can read well because even if you can write a book well, doesn’t mean you can read a book well. Do you think.
Right, the production costs are much higher.
Right. Do you think that can be broken down? I mean because, you know, that’s kind of what the publisher’s always said, that no there’s no way you can print a book that cheap because, because the costs are just too high. Aren’t there, I mean it seems like there would be ways that you could create your own, I mean you’d still have the higher costs cause you’d need to get somebody that can really read well, but I think you don’t necessarily need to go into a huge studio any more to record well. I mean you need some equipment and you need things, but you don’t necessarily need to book those. Even musicians are finding that now, you can do home studios and things like that. Do you think there will be a successful audio self-publisher?
You know, and it’s a, you know here we are doing a podcast right and you’re in one place and I’m in another.
It’s absolutely the case that the capacity of technology is increasing and the cost is falling. Moore’s law is still working. It doesn’t make any sense to bet against technology. So the long-term strategy for any publisher has to be, I have to show a way that I’m demonstrating value that defines something that enhances this product, that the, you know gives interviews for famous celebrities that you’re interested in, that we offer support beyond what one or two people would be able to offer for their own products.
But no doubt about it, people will be soon generating their own, you know we’re going to find people who are natural born actors and who have the ability to create things and now the technology makes it possible, and they’ll crank this stuff out in their basements and bathrooms.
Yeah, I mean, I assume, I mean there’s always going to be the people who want to hear a famous person read it, but those costs are always going to be higher and stuff like that, but yeah, there are people out there who don’t require the salary of a Hollywood star to record and audiobook.
Yeah, you know, and I have to say just dipping into this self-publishing world, so I read a lot of science fiction and I ran across this one author, just great stuff and started following all of his works, we had downloaded from Smashbooks a wonderful series and I understand he does some podcasts and so you’re going to see some breakout stars here. But I want to make it clear, it’s like too often we do this kind of the sky is falling thing, everything is going to be different. Well, some things will be different and the truth is we have new streams of content. They don’t immediately replace the older streams, but we have to develop the expertise as a profession to say well how do you deal with this stuff because the way it’s, that we’ve used in the past don’t apply well to this. And so again I strongly encourage librarians to say right now, you’re missing out on two-thirds of the content, you don’t even know what the independent publishers are doing in e-books because Overdrive doesn’t carry them. You don’t know what self-published authors are doing because you have no way to deliver them. So, we have to stick our toes in the water and start doing some things and developing the expertise that we need to continue to monitor this content.
Yeah, I think some it’s like, there’s the content of the long tale, this, it’s just, what’s here and now isn’t necessarily what’s going to go away, but it’s going to shrink and lots of new things will be added, so.
I also wanted to ask about, so when we want to, I believe you guys did this as well, hosted local content that was created by your community?
Yeah, this is the other thing that I, again we have the rise of the maker movement, right, so the library is not just a place to consume content, it’s in place to create it. And I used to talk about a xxxx list, so imagine you had a website, a big, button that said do you want to write a book? And so somebody clicks on that and it says do you want to write a good one? Because writing a good one is different from just producing slop, right, and so why couldn’t the library layout kind of a road map. If you want to be a writer, then read for crying out loud. You want to write mysteries? Read mysteries, here’s a list of, you know, the library can help you locate the best of the writing in this field. Second, you have to practice, so start writing. This is the Malcolm Gladwell, takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. That’s give years of full-time work.
Start writing. And then you need to have some critical feedback because you don’t want them to become a great concert pianist by banging away on the piano without instruction. Here’s a list of writer’s groups in the areas, they can give you thoughtful critique, they can help you write better things, they can expose you to other people who can help you with all these issues of plotting, on research and then finally, here’s a list of people that you have to have your book edited, this is what it costs for an editor, pay that because it’s such an essential piece of the quality of your writing. Here’s a list of copy editors in your area, their rates and what people think of them. Here’s a list of book cover designers because even e-books trap people on the basis of the covers. And then when you’re done, you’ll give it to us right? I mean we helped you write it, and then we’ll put it in our catalog and we’ll put a clip to buy it there and we’ll help you sell it and maybe we take a percentage of that sale. And what that does is that instead of again sitting back passively and saying gee, there’s so much stuff out there and how can we can figure out. You say, you know what, the next Jeffrey Archer or you know, JK Rowling is right here in Castle Rock and we’re going to help the write, help you write the book and get it out there and you’re going to put this library on the map. And we’ll get 10% of every sale that you have. That’s exciting to me, again it’s a creative response that says we are aligning ourselves with the creators of content, not just the distributors of content.
And did you, did you guys ever dive into having patron driven acquisition at Douglas County?
Yeah, although that one is very much restricted by what the publishers will let us have. And I, first, you either have to have a pipeline that goes out to a large distributor and is integrated into your catalog, [coughs], excuse me, and I think that because Douglas County libraries and lighter readers first really emphasize this integration point, finally we’re getting some APIs that make that possible. But I can’t say that we’ve done this in any big way because we haven’t had any publishers that have quite figured out a way to do that, or think that there’s enough of the market for them to provide it.
Right. Well the last thing that I wanted to ask about was something, a few years ago one of my early episodes of the podcast, I had Kate Sheehan on and we talked about when we were young and Mac, the Mac was the big, hot new computer and Hypercard was out there and it was so cool and, and sort of that, and from that we kind of extrapolated from what we thought the future of the e-book was and that’s still not really here yet and that we kind of thought it was going to be like sci-fi stuff, of the, I mean we’re kind of getting to the touch screens finally now, but integrating video and audio and links and all this kind of stuff and that’s still sort of. I mean it’s getting there and I know a few years back Pushpop Press had done the book for Al Gore that was an, I think it was an iBook only but it was sort of that kind of thing where you could bring up videos and things like that, I think they got bought by Facebook and now they do Facebook apps, but, do you think that’s the future of e-books? Or do you think, or, sort of, a more broad question, what do you think the future of e-books and e-publishing is?
Well, I think it comes down to the ubiquity and certainly the integration of multimedia. And just in passing, Hypercard was such a cool product wasn’t it?
You know, I mean there were so many things that came up from that era of computing that just kind of disappeared. Some of them are making a comeback, Hypercard was a wonderful, exciting, you can program in on that locations in a way that was just brilliantly simple and elegant. Cyberdog that Mac did for a while was another brilliant modular kind of approach that went by the wayside. So the best idea doesn’t always win unless we get good, strong advocacy for it. I was intrigued when I first started looking at these e-books, say you take one of the big five publishers and they take an existing book and they digitize it and they offer it to you as nothing more than digitized text. And they charge you $84 for it. Meanwhile, over in the children’s publishing market, you get people that were doing real experiments with the integration of all the own digital links, like for instance, you’re going along and you say Mary stepped out into the night and then she heard this sound of an animal, click here, and then you get to hear what Mary heard. Or, here’s a book where Diane is at a certain point, she has to make a decision, click here to go to her Facebook page and advise her. And so that whole emotion that are really immersive book that allows you to step into the world in a way that involves more senses than the eye, but your and actual video stuff, that’s pretty powerful stuff and I keep thinking like okay, so you, so we want you to buy this book about, it’s a reissued version of Mark Twain’s Life In The Mississippi, it’s public domain why would I buy that? Because you get, what’s his name, Hal something who imitates, who does a presentation where he is Mark Twain. Well put an interview with him, you know, have a clip of him doing this stuff, add value by using the richness of the e-pub platform, get some points off this stuff.
Although I should also point out, this is something I, people think I’m joking about but I’m not. Remember when I, we first got a fax machine and somehow a fax machine was more important, if you got a fax it was more important than a letter because it had this sense of urgency about it and then we moved through and email was so wonderful, you don’t have to print, type out the letter and print it and mail it and wait for it to get there, it was instantaneous. Well what happened with email is that nobody really, I, I actually remember trying to predict this, to say we’re going to see junk email and then of course spam comes up and now for many institutions 60% of their internet traffic is spam. I’ll now take the idea of the e-book that has the embedded video, audio and live links. And I predict the coming of the evil e-book, the EE exclamation point, the EE book and what that means is that it’s going to be 25% plagiarized content, 50% pornography and live links to that and then the remainder’s going to be malicious code. So you put it into your platform and it hunts down every other book and sends itself to every patron out there, you know this is going to happen. You know that the forces of evil will try to rise up and capture the e-book. So I think that, I call that up to say every technology is a mixed blessing and we need to figure out some strategies now that say okay, if there’s going to be all these people producing theses books and audio files and links and who knows what else, we need some sort of a quarantine system to electronically check the file before we make it available to our patrons.
Yeah that’s, even beyond that point, I’m sure even that we’ll allow this through at a certain point there will be e-books that will have ads just in them, that you’re reading the new James Patterson book and you finish chapter three and then hey, buy Kraft macaroni and cheese, or something like that, so.
Well, yeah, and in fact there’s some, I think it was Amazon where they took out a patent for using the white space in the margins for ads.
That is not a surprise.
Would that drive you crazy? Yeah, that drive me crazy. I think it would be, well I started to say I think there would be such a revolt, but I remember buying my first cable subscription and I was told that by paying a subscription I would have no ads. And then how long did it take for the ads to show up.
Exactly, it’s, that’s my thing with the Hulu Plus thing, so you pay for it and you still have to watch the ads? I don’t understand.
Yeah, well, you know and now they show you ads at movie theaters and like what?
Yeah [laughs]. Advertising is everywhere. And speaking of advertising, would you like to tell people how they can find out more about you online? [laughs]
Anybody interested in speaking engagements about this, consulting engagements about this, white papers, facilitated processes about the future of libraries, you can reach me at www.jlarue.com and, or email me email@example.com. I would love, I again want to close with this idea that libraries are one of the most benevolent, transformative institutions in our culture, we’re the most radical. We support whatever individuals are seeking and now we have the ability to move our entire communities forward in ways that it never occurred to us before. Just by responding to what our communities are looking for. This is the right time to be alive, the right time to be a librarian and if you’re interested in the future of our institution I can help you.
Well that’s great. You, and you’re a great inspiration and I’m glad you’re doing this now because I think you were doing inspiring things when you were at Douglas County and now I think you have more time to devote to that full time, so.
All right, well thank you so much for speaking to me.
Steve, a great pleasure and best to you.
All right, bye bye.
Well and the problem there was that all the people who were at the PLA were trying to use the conference WiFi and it just was completely overloaded, so they couldn’t keep up.
Yeah, unfortunately that’s usually a problem with conference WiFi [laughs].