I love libraries. I always have. I believe that libraries are one of the greatest inventions of modern man. In fact, if I’m ever extremely wealthy, I am going to leave a good portion of my estate to a library (sorry kids!).

As much as I love the library, there is one thing that causes me nothing but frustration. And that is the lack of available eBook titles in the virtual stacks. As it turns out, this is really not the fault of the library. They recognize the problem and their hands are tied.

Let me explain…

In his informative article, “Simon & Schuster, Macmillan Express Concerns About Library Ebook Lending After ‘Positive’ Talks with ALA,” Michael Kelly lays out the issue that book publishers have with library eBook lending.

In a nutshell, the big publishers are concerned about revenue. Checking out an eBook from the library is so easy that publishers fear they will lose significant money in book sales.

Why don’t they feel this way about paper books, you ask? As it turns out, checking out paper-based library books contains a lot of what they call “friction.”  Checking out a book is difficult and cumbersome. I must physically go to the library, check out the book, and then physically go there again to return it.  This friction results in more book sales. And this friction disappears when I can just make a few taps on my iPad and have the book magically appear on my device – particularly when I can do this for free, courtesy of my local library.

The six big publishers have responded in different ways:

  • Random House supplies all of their titles to libraries as eBooks. However only one person at a time can have the eBook checked out.
  • HarperCollins supplies their titles to libraries as well. However, a title can be checked out only 26 times before the library has to pay for the eBook again.
  • Perseus supplies some of their backlist books as eBooks, but not their current bestsellers.
  • Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster do not supply any eBook titles to libraries.

What this means for me and you is that most of the titles we would want to check out in eBook format are not available. And for those titles that are available, the likelihood of the library actually having the eBook in-stock for check out is extremely slim. This is exactly what the experience has been like for me. I find the entire system incredibly frustrating, which is exactly what the publishing houses want. They want me to be so frustrated that I purchase the book. Usually, I don’t. I just pick a different book to read, or walk to the library and get a paper copy.

I used to get really annoyed with the library about this. I couldn’t figure out what could be so difficult about getting eBooks. After all, I can get them on Amazon using three clicks. Now I understand that it is not the library at all. It is the publisher (an A-Ha! moment).

There are differing schools of thought on the issue. In his article “Thinking more about ebooks and libraries and what big publishers should do,” Mike Shatzkin does a great job of laying out the issues. He also provides some anecdata and raises good questions about the  fears versus the facts of the effect of library lending on publisher sales. Here are his suggestions:

  • Gather more data using many titles of the same type. For example, topical non-fiction or fiction of a particular genre (historical, romance, etc). If we only examine particular titles or not enough titles, we will not be able to identify trends.
  • Put 10 or 20 titles that have already had a high-volume run into libraries as eBooks. Look at the resulting eBook sales for those titles both before and after to compare the effect.
  • Experiment with books that are not expected to be big sellers. Put half into libraries and withhold the other half. Measure the effect.
  • License titles for a period of time versus the number of loans.
  • Consider having libraries sell eBooks to people who want to buy them. Give some referral revenue to the library.

I like all of Shatzkin’s ideas. Until we have some hard data, we will not really know the effect of libraries on eBook sales. Just like we couldn’t guess the effect that DVDs would have on movie goers. And we’re still trying to iron out the purchase of music digitally, versus listening to it for free on internet radio.

I think it is time for the big six to truly examine the market, rather than making predictions from a place of fear. I’m not saying that they don’t have a reason for concern. But rather than simply locking out those of us who prefer borrowing to purchasing, let’s gather the data and find a workable solution.

In the meantime, I won’t bother to download eBooks from my library. I already can predict that, for whatever reason, I won’t be able to get the titles I want. But I sure wish I could.



Val Swisher
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