Posted by: Steven Harris | November 28, 2011

One Small Word

I’ve always loved a Penguin Classics book. They’re just the right combination of convenience, authenticity, and scholarship. This holds true for the paperbacks as well as the e-books. I’d rather pay 7 or 8 bucks for a nicely edited classic e-book from Penguin than to have to slog through one of those typographical disasters offered by Project Gutenberg for free.

The irony here is that I rarely borrow Penguin e-books from my library (public or the academic library where I work). Too much trouble. I just buy them on Amazon. Last week Penguin ruffled feathers in the library world when they withdrew their e-books from OverDrive in what turned out to be a conflict with Amazon over the Kindle lending option in OverDrive.

It looks like Penguin has backpeddled on that a bit, at least until the end of the year, when they hope to work out some details with Amazon. Existing Penguin books have been restored to OverDrive.

But there is something in the initial statement from Penguin announcing the withdrawal that continues to bug me. One small word:

“We have always placed a high value on the role that libraries can play in connecting our   authors with our readers.” (emphasis mine)

Publishers always trot out the “we love libraries” platitudinous crap when it suits them (actions to the contrary). No biggie. What really bothers me though is the possessive pronoun: OUR.

I can understand them having a feeling of ownership about the books they publish. If the phrase had been “the role libraries play in connecting readers with the books we publish,” then cheers to them. But our authors with our readers? Really? Those agents don’t exist outside the Penguin corporate structure? As though people who happen to read a Penguin book are forever part of the machine. Worse yet for the author: there’s more than a little of the plantation in that sense of ownership. “Shut up and write another book!”

I know some of you will say I push this too far. It’s just a little possessive pronoun. But the unthoughtful and inconsiderate way in which this and other e-book fiascos have been sprung on libraries reinforces the idea that corporate publishers don’t much care about libraries and they could give a hoot about readers who aren’t buyers. It’s a market transaction or it’s nothing. Same holds true for authors. (Watch your back!) The entire phrase speaks pretty ominously about what Penguin thinks when the library invades their turf.

Literature, reading, and information itself are all part of a cultural ecosystem populated by individual humans. There is no ownership in that regard. If publishers really valued libraries, they would work to develop a relationship that was mutually beneficial. I think there is room for publishers to profit and for libraries to thrive in the ecosystem, but it only happens when we recognize the human in the relationship. Treating books and e-books like commodities is one thing, but none of us have a right to treat people that way too.


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