November 17, 2017

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Self-Published Ebooks not a Solution for K-12 Schools

Ebooks—it’s been a tough time. The bestselling fiction titles that users want are simply unavailable to libraries under terms that are friendly to our institutions. We’re left with business models in which publishers restrict the number of loans, expensive schemes that jack up the cost of those titles, or deals that tether us to specific reading devices.

Illustration by Mark Tuchman

One option, championed by Jamie LaRue, director of Douglas County (CO) Libraries(DCL), is to pursue other sources of content. LaRue has struck deals with independent—meaning self-published—authors. DCL recently launched a deal to purchase titles from Smashwords, an aggregator and reseller of self-published content and so-called independent publishers, some of which offer hundreds of books on the site, while others publish just a couple titles. But the real problem is that most of the larger publishers and best-selling books on Smashwords deal in adult fiction—which is to say, erotica.

Even more troubling, in a recent interview by Publishers’ Weekly, LaRue was asked about DCL’s acquisition of children’s ebooks from Smashwords that were being made available with no review. “‘Can we vet every children’s book before we add it? I am not sure that we can,” LaRue responded, noting that he suspects DCL might “get stung once or twice.” This laissez faire approach simply will not cut it in school libraries. Truly inappropriate books in schools result in lawsuits, not minor stings.

I understand LaRue’s frustration and his desire to work actively toward a solution. Yet the maxim of quality over quantity certainly applies here. Publishers serve a critical role in the information ecosystem and are especially important for school libraries.

Unlike public and academic libraries, which have whole departments dedicated to new title acquisition, school librarians largely work alone. Even if we don’t always realize it, we rely on publishers to help with book selection. It’s the publishers who bear the cost of paying people to read the thousands of manuscripts submitted each year. Publishers pay for someone to then work with the selected authors to ensure that the books are accurate, grammatical, and appropriate in content and reading level for the intended audience. We’re left with the relatively easy task of having to select from the small percentage of books that make it through the established publishing houses each year. Our biggest challenge is that there always seem to be more books that we want than we can afford.

Imagine for a second if, instead of just having to consider among a few thousand vetted and professionally produced books, you had to wade through exponentially more choices? There are about 20,000 children’s and young adult books listed on Smashwords, but are any of them worth your time? The highest reviewed children’s book, Storm and the Magic Saddle, has 12 5-star reviews. But on deeper examination, I found only 10 actual reviews (two are duplicates), and only one of those reviewers has assessed any other books. There are also two reviews with no rating that question the accuracy of the information about horsemanship in the book as well as the age-appropriateness of the writing.

It all seems so, well, unprofessional. Given the publishers, aggregators, and professional review sources like SLJ that we’ve come to rely on, I just can’t believe that self-publishing is ever going to be the next big thing for libraries. Not when there are so many other great books still waiting to be read from the expert and established publishers with whom we already work.

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