Last week I attended the Book Expo conference in New York City. This is the conference where publishers and book sellers gather to preview upcoming titles and discuss issues of mutual concern. It’s always a fun experience for librarians to be able to see new books and authors, so that has long been a reason to attend BEA. In the last few years, however, it has become an even more relevant conference for librarians because of the issues surrounding ebooks and libraries.
I have been to this conference for the last three years, and have seen the conversation about ebooks change dramatically in that time. In 2011, everyone was sure that ebooks were going to completely replace print publications. Last year, the growth of ebooks sales had slowed a bit so everyone was feeling more calm and confident. They had begun to look for growth opportunities; for example, fiction still dominates the ebook sales (and publishing) so there was a lot of discussion about how to grow sales in other areas such as children’s materials; interactive apps for kids’ books got a lot of attention.
This year, these apps for kids’ books have apparently fizzled to a large degree. The new big topic is “discoverability” particularly as it relates to the “backlist.” Essentially, publishers, authors and book stores are concerned at their inability to connect readers with older books, especially ebooks.
For most publishers, authors and book stores, new releases are the main focus of attention, by far. Most of the real estate in books stores is occupied by multiple copies of new books. Libraries have never been that good at the “front list.” I can hear some of you arguing, but really, you have to admit that by definition a long reserve list for new books is a sure sign that we aren’t satisfying demand and that we don’t have enough copies. Instead, we aim for depth and breadth of materials; that is, we acquire and provide a larger variety of items that an average book store can. We also have an extensive stock of “backlist” items – this is the bulk of our collection. And we also specialize in catalogs that are designed to aid library users in accessing the front list and the backlist.
So, it became even clearer to me at this conference that libraries do have a special, important role to play in this new world of ebooks because we excel at discoverability and at providing access to the “complete ouvre” of an author. This is a great opportunity for us to promote the unique service that we bring to readers, authors and publishers. I hope we can seize it before it passes us by!