Sell This Book!

Sell This Book!

Corporate publishing wants to turn all readers into renters. We’re trying to stop them.


Saving movies to watch later is a breeze on YouTube TV, where “recording without storage limits” comes free with the monthly subscription fee of $64.99. There are 85-plus channels on offer, and the jewels you choose from this wealth of movies and shows are kept in what they call your “library.”

So I went to my library the other day and tried to watch A Brighter Summer Day—a classic of Taiwanese cinema that, to my surprise, was no longer there for me to watch, because it turns out that access to my “unlimited” recordings on YouTube TV expires after a few months.

Maybe you’ve noticed how things keep disappearing—or stop working—when you “buy” them online from big platforms like Netflix and Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. You can watch their movies and use their software and read their books—but only until they decide to pull the plug. You don’t actually own these things—you can only rent them. But the titanic amount of cultural information available at any given moment makes it very easy to let that detail slide. We just move on to the next thing, and the next, without realizing that we don’t—and, increasingly, can’t—own our media for keeps.

My copy of H.W. and F.G. Fowler’s The King’s English, on the other hand, has been near my bedside lamp for more than 20 years; it’s a second edition, published in 1906, in a faded but sturdy red cloth binding. This book and its mind-bending disquisitions on syntactic clauses are not going anywhere—and I have every hope that my long relationship with the sly, seductively exacting Fowler brothers will last some decades more. And that’s how a library should be, whether private or public. The point of a library is to preserve, and in order to preserve, a library must own.

Unfortunately, today’s mega-publishers and book distributors have glommed on to the notion of “expiring” media, and they would like to normalize that temporary, YouTube-style notion of a “library.” That’s why, last summer, four of the world’s largest publishers sued the Internet Archive over its National Emergency Library, a temporary program of the Internet Archive’s Open Library intended to make books available to the millions of students in quarantine during the pandemic. Even though the Internet Archive closed the National Emergency Library in response to the lawsuit, the publishers refused to stand down; what their lawsuit really seeks is the closing of the whole Open Library, and the destruction of its contents. (The suit is ongoing and is expected to resume later this year.) A close reading of the lawsuit indicates that what these publishers are looking to achieve is an end to the private ownership of books—not only for the Internet Archive but for everyone.

As one of the founders of the journalist-owned Brick House publishing cooperative, which was launched just a few months ago, I realized we are in a good position to fight back. The Brick House may be small, but we’re fully independent publishers, writers, and artists who are free to do business as we wish—and that means we are free to sell permanent copies of our work to libraries. We decided to learn how best to do this, to not just improve our own distribution but also create a model for how real ownership can survive and persist in the digital era. We connected with all kinds of people and organizations working in this area, including Library Futures—a group of librarians, scholars, lawyers, and archivists preserving and protecting libraries.

I’m very happy to report that the Brick House has made a significant contribution to this fight, just by selling a book to a library—for keeps.

The book is called the Brick House Apparent Quarterly (Vol. I), and it’s an archived selection of some of our favorite art and writing from the nine current Brick House publications: Awry, FAQ NYC, Hmm, No Man Is An Island, OlongoAfrica, Popula, Preachy, Sludge, and Tasteful Rude. We sold a digital copy to the Internet Archive’s Open Library, for the same price ($32) as the forthcoming paper copy.

We wanted everyone to be clear on what selling—really selling, not licensing—a digital copy means, so we talked with Harvard copyright adviser, lawyer, and librarian Kyle K. Courtney. The copy of the Brick House book we sold to the Open Library is theirs to keep forever. Even if they should need one day to transfer the book to a different medium (for example, if ebooks were to become obsolete), the Open Library will still own it. The Open Library will always be free to loan the book to their patrons through the magic of Controlled Digital Lending (CDL), whereby one (digital) copy can be loaned to one patron at a time—just like with paper books. Long-established library security systems ensure that a patron can’t just pirate and distribute our digital book. (If the Brick House Apparent Quarterly proves very popular, libraries might need to buy extra copies!) CDL is the legal means by which digital books and paper books are made equal, and every publisher should support its global adoption.

Libraries should pay only once for each copy of an ebook, as the Open Library did for the new Brick House book, so that they can lend it to their patrons forever, and nobody—no government, business, or regulatory body—will ever be able to stop them.

The very role and meaning of libraries relies on their right to own books, because books that can expire are books that can disappear permanently—books that can be taken away. There is a cultural, a political, even a civilizational danger in this vulnerability that can’t be overestimated.

Sourcing is the glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together,” as Jonathan Zittrain wrote last year in The Atlantic in an article about the Internet’s weaknesses as a cultural archive. When a link disappears, when an online publisher goes out of business, readers, researchers, and scholars will hit a dead end—unless digital libraries are given the same power to archive that traditional libraries have had for centuries. Digital media is recklessly burning its own record to ash behind it, so we need institutions and systems to affirmatively protect and preserve 21st-century knowledge.

As writers and artists whose work has often disappeared from the Internet, we Brick House publishers have a keen appreciation of the importance of archives and libraries. Most books are out of print; most of what has been written has also been forgotten. We don’t want that to happen to our work. And we are acutely alive to the threat of corporate encroachment over the right to access information in a free society. We stand with the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle, who said: “If a publisher maintains control over every reading event, who’s allowed to read it, when are they allowed to read it, if they’re allowed to read it… we are in George Orwell world.”

Publishers create, and libraries preserve. Publishers can—must—work in symbiosis with libraries to create and maintain the most vibrant, rich, and lasting digital culture for the future.

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