One of the suggestions I frequently make in my library talks is that one of the things that libraries can do to help patrons deal with technology is have many current books about technology for check out, and to bring these books to computer classes so people can take them home when the ideas are fresh in their minds. The whole Web 2.0-as-meme idea came from Tim O’Reilly who was looking for a way to brand a new conference about how the web was changing. I explain this to people and then I say “You probably know Tim O’Reilly, he publishes the best series of tech manuals out there, the ones with the animals on the cover…” and I’m always amazed that most of the librarians I speak to don’t actually know about them.
This isn’t totally surprising, the books cater towards a techie market, they’re expensive and many of the people who would need or want them are buying them themselves. I had them as textbooks in several library school classes. But it’s also interesting to look a little in to what the deal is with technology books and the publishing industry generally. Tim O’Reilly talks about how Amazon sees themselves (according to tax filings) as competing with not just bookstores but publishers. He has a really good follow-up in the comments section.
Let me give you an example of how today’s much more consolidated marketplace makes it harder to place publishing bets. Borders and B&N have largely thrown in the towel on many high end books, saying “Amazon’s going to get that business anyway.” So they’ve shrunk their computer book sections, and are taking zero copies of important books, even from important publishers like us. We recently told them of our plans for a Hadoop book for instance, and both B&N and Borders said they won’t carry it. That leaves us with Amazon. Amazon will pre-order only a couple of hundred copies.
I’ve had to fight with my publishing team to get this book approved, since they’re worried that they won’t make back the investment it will take to bring it to market. It’s a lot easier to be sure of making money on a book like Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, to which the chains will commit an advance order of thousands of copies. Now that’s also good publishing, but you can see how the opportunities are shrinking.
Meanwhile, Amazon is increasingly throwing their weight around. Conversations with the buyers start to sound like this: “Are you really telling me that our books won’t show up in searches unless we agree to contribute to your new merchandising program?” [emphasis mine]
I don’t doubt that in the long run, there will be new long-tail economic models that support investment in specialized forms of content that don’t have the volume to be supported by advertising, but we’re heading for a really tricky period where the old models will be dead before the new ones have arrived.
How do libraries fit into this model? We’re frequently told that we’ve got crazy buying power in the aggregate but what happens when we’re not even given the option to see these books brought to market? O’Reilly also has some interesting commentary on ebooks and their profitability that’s worth a looksee. [rc3]