Nine days, six presentations, four cities, 20,000 miles and an airplane ride every day except one.
It was a whirlwind itinerary for Sue Polanka, Wright State’s eBook expert, during her February trip to Malaysia—a trip that concluded with a visit to the Sarawak State Library, where she was treated like nothing short of royalty.
The head of reference and instruction for the Wright State Libraries, Polanka is in such high demand for her expertise in eBook economics that she turns down several speaking requests a week, but has made trips to South America, Southeast Asia and nearly 20 states in the United States in the last two years.
It’s all because of print’s recent push to digital.
Libraries around the world, whether academic, municipal and state—or even embassy libraries, as Polanka has learned as of late—are trying to figure out how to provide eBooks to their constituents. But they’re finding that’s a tricky proposition because publishers are petrified about piracy, revenue loss and content control.
That’s where Wright State’s Polanka comes in. Polanka has a depth of knowledge about electronic books that few of her peers possess. She is a dedicated blogger with four books under her belt and three national awards for her work, including one from the Library Journal, which named her a “mover and a shaker” for the industry in 2011.
An eBook is a book-length publication in digital form, consisting of text, images or both, and produced on, published through and readable on computers or other electronic devices like Kindles, Nooks or the Apple iPad.
“I prefer to make history than read about it,” said Polanka. “I’m all about change and the future. I welcome new and exciting things. I’m a dreamer, with long-range vision.”
Libraries have been pushing hard to acquire digital content over the last five years. The effort has intensified because publishers have begun offering bestsellers and other popular books digitally.
Polanka said it started with the old library catalogs. They went digital in the late ’80s. Then the Internet hit in 1993 and suddenly libraries were expected to offer Internet access and the digital spoils that came from the evolution. Large directories of data like encyclopedias started being offered in the digital format. Academic journals and scholarly monographs followed. Now audio, video and popular books are digital.
“Once bestselling titles went digital and piqued the interest of the mass market, things exploded. As a result, eBooks are getting a lot more attention,” said Polanka.
That includes attention from publishers grappling with keeping profits up in a digital world that is becoming centered on eBook library lending.
Polanka said some publishers tripled eBook prices for public libraries, while others require libraries to purchase a new copy after the e-book is checked out 26 times. Worse, many of the biggest publishers (the ‘big six’ as they are referred to in the industry) will not sell eBooks to libraries.
“Publishers are seeing their print sales dive, and the increase in eBook sales is not enough to compensate for print losses,” said Polanka. “The digital world is much more complicated and has more restrictions than print. Many librarians aren’t happy with them but are trying to challenge them or live with them. It’s a chaotic time.”
Amid that chaos, Polanka has carved out a cottage industry. A veteran eBook blogger with commercial contacts that climb all the way to the top of the corporate publisher ladders, Polanka is as connected as it gets, and in high demand.
“When the Secretary of State’s office calls and wants you to head to South America to share your expertise, that’s when you know you’ve done something right,” said Polanka.
Last May that’s what happened. Polanka was asked to participate in Argentina’s National Book Fair, one of the largest in the world. Polanka was tapped to be a speaker for the U.S. Embassy, whose booth at the fair chronicled the evolution of the book.
“I’ll be honest with you, until then, I didn’t know embassy libraries existed,” said Polanka.
In foreign countries, U.S. embassy libraries or Information Resource Centers (IRCs) provide access to current and authoritative information about the United States. To a limited degree, this service mirrors what Americans take for granted at home: well-stocked libraries to support communities of every sort and to provide a foundation for democracy.
While in Argentina, Polanka spoke to librarians and students locally, but also recorded presentations for the embassy website. That led to more requests from other embassies around the globe for videoconferences and webinars, and ultimately the trip to Malaysia.
“They want me to speak because I’m passionate about eBooks and the shift, but also because I understand the economics and licensing of eBooks from the library perspective,” said Polanka. “I’m dialed in to current events and trends in the industry and am constantly learning new things.
On her last day of the Malaysia trip, before her last presentation, Polanka was beat. She wanted to do her best, but she was tired.
When she arrived, she was greeted by dozens of library officials tautly lined up as she and the entourage entered the building. Ornate, beaded necklaces were placed around the necks of her and the embassy representative she traveled with as soon as they stepped in the building. Polanka said the smiles, handshakes and photographs were overwhelming and overpowering.
“It just felt so special. The entire experience just made me feel so welcome. As tired as I was, that warm welcome fired me up and I was ready to deliver,” said Polanka.
The experience powered her though her final presentation and to the conclusion of a trip she wouldn’t trade for the world. Now back on campus she beams about the trip, blogs about the latest trends on her site (NoShelfRequired) and readies herself for her next trip abroad: Brazil, this September.