How publishers should learn to stop worrying and love library ebook lending

My latest Locus column, Libraries and E-books, talks about the raw deal that libraries are currently getting from the big five publishers on ebook pricing (libraries pay up to five times retail for their ebooks, and are additionally burdened with the requirement to use expensive, proprietary collection-management tools). I point out that libraries are effectively the last main-street "retailer" of books, and represent a valuable ally for publishing in the age of ebooks, where all the other major players are not just ebook vendors, but ebook publishers as well, and looking to take market-share from the publishers.

Unlike every other channel for e-books, libraries are not the publishers’ competitors. They don’t want to sell devices. They don’t want to win over customers to a particular cloud. They just want readers to read, writers to write, and publishers to sell. They deserve a better deal than they’re getting.

There’s a good case to be made for libraries getting discounts on e-books, rather than paying premiums. For one thing, they’re excellent customers and they make bulk-buys. For another, the e-books that libraries buy stay in their collection forever, unlike print books. When a library downsizes its stock of last-year’s print bestseller, it puts most of its copies in its booksale for a nominal sum, a dollar or two, and often those books end up in the used-book stream, being sold alongside the new books on Amazon at steep discounts, competing for readers’ dollars.

But e-books can’t be sold in the booksale. They don’t ever end up competing with new books – and they never generate revenue for libraries as used books. That is, even when priced at par, e-books make more money for publishers and less money for libraries.

Publishers should be courting libraries as neutral parties and potential allies in the e-book wars. Publishers are in direct competition with e-book companies like Amazon, who publish e-books as well as selling them. But when Amazon sells an e-book, it gets mountains of business intelligence from the transaction: who is buying, where, from which keywords, and with what other books (for starters). What does the publisher get? An aggregate sales figure, 90 days after the fact. Of course Amazon is running circles around the Big Five publishers: the publishers know nothing about their customers, and Amazon knows everything about them.

Libraries and E-books

Notable Replies

  1. Good luck. The only reason the library system exists at all today is that it is grandfathered in. Can you imagine someone suggesting a government funded system of free lending of for-profit materials in today's copyright climate? They would be lucky to be just laughed out the door instead of sued by the publisher's lobby just for suggesting such an idea.

    The shame is that the public library system is a proven good. It's one of the great equalizing factors in the world, and there is absolutely no chance of anything similar existing in today's world because copyright holders have all of the power in government. The closest thing we have is the free software movement, and even that still struggles for legitimacy.

  2. Not to mention that it is socialist. If poor people want to read and educate themselves, they should get a job! /snark

    The good thing is despite what you mention and the socialist idea behind public libraries is that they do enjoy a great deal of goodwill. I think they need to leverage that goodwill into some more sensible copyright law exemptions for ebooks. A first sale doctrine for the digital age. While working with publishers and authors is laudable, it essentially puts the libraries into the position of beggar, asking for the permission to do things which should be within its rights as a public good.

  3. Our local library is quite cutting edge and not only lends e-books, but all kinds of devices that you can try out. Additionally, in NY any library card holder can get access to a lending library of ebooks from the NYC library system.

  4. Is it possible that every single good reason laid out in the argument for playing nice with public libraries is also exactly what makes the predators salivate when they see an easy, unguarded, source of income? Because they're publicly funded, nobody feels particularly - by which I mean personally - hurt when they're robbed blind. We can all feel aggrieved at it, but it's just not the same thing as being mugged in the street. Maybe it's not doing libraries any favours to draw attention to their vulnerabilities to robber barons in this way?

  5. If the cards that used to come in the backs of books are any indication, 26 checkouts for a single book is way too low. It wasn't uncommon to see a book with the front and back of the card filled back in the day, and our library just used little datestamps (from an ink stamper!) to mark them, so it could get several on each side of a card.

    Harpen Collins is hardly a neutral voice in the ebook lending debate too. Most of their arguments can be boiled down to "we want more money". I laugh at the "undermine the emerging e-book eco-system" point most of all, because big publishers like HC have been doing that for well over a decade now and have only recently started to realize how futile it is to fight the future.

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