E-Books in Libraries: Ownership Versus Access

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Simmering all last year, the disagreements between libraries and publishers have broken into a rolling boil. After trading angry letters, associations representing publishers and librarians had a face-to-face tête-à-tête which I don’t think did too much to repair relations. (Although the library delegation feels more positively about it, which I think is a good thing.)

While it’s an issue that librarians say is of crucial importance to them, it’s not one that’s of great economic importance to publishers at this point. (That’s not to say it’s of no economic importance or that it couldn’t become an issue of great economic importance down the road; it’s just to say that right now, publishers are able to survive in the marketplace without selling e-books to libraries.)

Still, I believe publishers want to develop libraries as a viable sales (and marketing) channel for their e-books. They just want to do it in a way that’s most profitable to them while serving the marketplace.

Publishers, by their actions, seem to be demonstrating this by steady, albeit too slow for some, movement toward more e-book access for libraries. For instance, it just came out that by year’s end Penguin will extend its e-book lending pilot through 3M to all of the vendor’s clients (about 70 in all). It’s a small step but, like all steps in this market, symbolic.

That said, I think some aspects of the discussion around libraries and e-books aren’t being fully explored or looked at in all possible useful ways. For instance, take this really interesting comment on this post about the ALA/AAP meeting, which brings up for me a way of thinking about it that I hadn’t considered before.

From Diane Bronson, collection development coordinator at Live Oak Public Libraries:

Why are librarians so hung up on ownership when we will never own digital media anyway? What we should be concerned with (and I cannot understand why ALA can’t see this) is ACCESS.

We have never whimpered and whined about owing the databases to which we all so readily subscribe. That model of digital access has been in front of our noses for the last 30 years and yet we are busily trying to stuff the square peg of ownership into the round hole of librarie’s historical access to printed materials! Well, folks, these are NOT physical objects and its time we stopped trying fit our models for accessing physical objects into the reality of digital.

The only reason libraries ever needed to own books was so we could provide ACCESS to them! Ownership was simply the only way to provide access to physical objects like books, DVDs, cassettes, etc. Now we don’t need to own them anymore — we just need to provide access at a fair and reasonable cost, one which will compensate authors and publishers for their work and allow libraries to provide access to digital books in an affordable manner.

Subscription access is a model that has worked for decades for libraries. Why is ALA (and the rest of the world, for that matter) ignoring this option? Freading is the only model out there for ebooks (that I’ve found) giving libraries and their patrons the best of both worlds. Easy access to thousands of ebooks at a reasonable cost PER USE. Our library subscribes and I can’t think of a more economical model for libraries or publishers.

Publishers provide a list of all of their digital materials. They range from bestsellers to years-old backlist titles. Library users browse the contents and download whatever they find interesting. The library pays a small charge (ranging from $0.50 to $2.00 depending on the title) for each use.

Who wins? EVERYONE.

Publishers get to chance to promote and profit from their entire list — not just the few titles libraries can afford to buy at inflated prices. Publishers and authors get paid, often for titles they wouldn’t have a hope of selling to libraries under current models.

Library users get a large choice of titles, not just the limited number that libraries can afford to make available under current models.

And libraries get instant access to large collections of ebooks — without having to reinvent their entire library collections, selecting every title individually, spending precious library staff time and tax dollars at a rate of 2 or 3 times the list price of a print book, and taking the chance that no one will want it after all that. Access fees are paid only when a book is actually downloaded. No platform charges, no set-up fees, just the cost per download.

Can cash-strapped libraries ask for a better deal that this? Can publishers? Why are we both ignoring a successful business model that’s been satisfactorily in use for years? Can someone explain this?

I feel as if the entire library world has just discovered audio CDs, and is trying to figure out how to make them work on a cassette player.

I love this idea for a model and especially the kicker. You go, Diane!

What do you all think? Is this a good idea? Is there a good reason why it wouldn’t work?

Access image via Shutterstock

Jeremy Greenfield

About Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield is the editorial director of Digital Book World. Opinions presented here are his own. Read more of his work here.

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9 thoughts on “E-Books in Libraries: Ownership Versus Access

  1. Streaming, cloud-based content is certainly one model. Downsides: to use the journal model, just consider academic libraries. Now 90% or more of collection budgets go to subscriptions. Leave your vendor, lose your collection. And the consequence of that? The monopoly results in a steep price increase. El Sevier. So the model has been tested — and resulted in a sharp restriction of library purchasing power. I think we could (and should) do better.

  2. Leaving control of the files to a vendor leaves us with spotty, expensive access. Preservation of knowledge? In the hands of vendors. Privacy of readers? Gone. Accessibility to readers with print disabilities? Sometimes. New models, yes. Abdication of professional values of providing access to all? No.

  3. I think the solution can be even simpler: Publishers should simply treat libraries like they do any other account/channel and sell them however many copies they need, base the transaction off a standard discount schedule (~50% off?) and give them perpetual rights to lend each copy out to one person at a time. That’s it. Pretty easy.

    Most publishers who are against this model worry about lost sales and/or cannibalization. They’re overlooking the tremendous discoverability libraries have to offer. They also need to realize that in the not too distant future *everyone* will be able to resell their “used” ebooks. ReDigi is already offering that service for digital music and I’m sure it won’t be long before we see the same option for ebooks.

    Publishers need to quit being so stingy with the library channel, a partner that has been extremely important over the years.

  4. I see in the comments a need by librarians to control their public. Maybe that’s just me.
    From what I gather the explained system would work.

    Also a simple– pass-thru– system would work.

    The reader could simply go to the library and be connected to various ebook sellers. Then they could download whatever they wanted at a library discount agreed to by publishers and authors.

    I have six books on Kindle now. I would be happy to get .50 a download if I had the whole USA library visiting public as my potential customer base.

    It seems to be a question of control, maybe a scarcity of books, whoa, shame, nobody can write books anymore, shame.

    Get an agreement. Quit posturing.

    peter@peterdsowatskey.com

  5. Thank you Jeremy for this article, and thank you Diane for your positive comments on the Freading eBook Service. It probably sounds self-serving to say, but given that over 800 libraries have signed up this year, and 610 publishers are providing content, I think a few people agree with Diane’s comments.

    I have seen many intelligent comments on both sides of this issue, including some of the ones above. One thing to keep in mind, that for perhaps 90% of the country’s libraries, the debate over access v. ownership is not theoretical, but practical. The Freading eBook collection as it stands today (and it is growing) would cost a library $1 million, to have one copy of each book. That is just out of reach for most libraries. If they can access it for no upfront money, and budget what they can afford, it becomes a very easy decision. As the collection gets larger, better and more diverse, the decision gets even easier. I also do not think the issues are mutually exclusive, as one can own some content and access other content. Better than half of our customers have a significant collection of content that they have bought.

    Brian Downing
    CEO
    Library Ideas, LLC (a.k.a. Freading, Freegal, etc.)

  6. Thank you! I agree wholeheartedly it is not a good idea to focus on access and forget about ownership.

    I can see walking down the access-but-no-ownership road as a triple whammy – 1) Going this route offers a huge threat to the privacy of public library patrons whose information may be obtained by publishing companies (what they read, what they’ve checked out where they live etc.), 2) Going down this road will also greatly increase the cost to public libraries of providing e-books to patrons – who came up with the idea that a per usage model is a good one? That is not a viable model for public libraries (and don’t even get me started on publishers thinking it is okay to charge public libraries list price or two or three times the list price for e-books…) and that isn’t even getting into the biggest issue I see on the e-book front – the threat to intellectual freedom.

    And on that last point, intellectual freedom, I cannot agree with those persons who think publishing companies are going to allow access to all e-books being created to members of the public and public libraries simply out of the goodness of their hearts. I can see access being denied for a number of reasons and if you don’t own the e-book — then you don’t have control of the access to it – the publishing companies do and they can limit your access to an e-book.

    And I will say there is a definite difference in viewpoints on this subject both between those who work in the library field and those who work in the tech field and again between those who are newer to the library field and have come of age in the tech era as compared to those of us who have been in the library field for a number of years.

  7. Nothing’s new under the sun; the access model is actually the dominant paradigm for ebook lending in Scandinavia and the only way ebook lending can work in Sweden, where a pilot was initiated by the major publishing houses in collaboration with some libraries ten years ago. That pilot was institutionalized as Elib, the ebook aggregator that is owned by the four biggest publishers and that has had a de facto monopoly on ebook lending ever since. The way it works is that all libraries get access (free of initial charge) to Elibs full catalogue of ebooks. They then pay three dollar per loan, loans that are free of charge to the patron.

    This is basically a great model for library patrons, but it is by no means a perfect solution from the point of view of the book trading eco system. Publishers complains that the model is creating a lending market instead of a commercial market (which is true, somewhere around ten times as many ebooks are circulated via libraries each month compared to the number of ebooks being sold). As a reaction to this, a lot of publishers now withhold new titles from libraries, so as to give them a chance to sell. Furthermore, all the publishers that does not own a share in Elib complain about the fact that half of the profits stay with the aggregator (yep, that *is* a steep distribution fee).

    Also from the point of view of libraries, this is not a fully satisfactory model. It’s very hard to control a budget, it’s increasingly difficult to work with top list titles and all ebooks cost the same three dollars, no matter if it’s an obscure deep backlist title or a novelty.

    Having said this, I think it’s fundamentally an interesting model. All it really needs is more flexibility and for the libraries to have some measure of control over how they spend their money. I think this will happen as the market matures and and more players enter the arena.

  8. As a digital publisher, we wholeheartedly agree with Diane Bronson’s point of view. Streaming subscription access is an affordable solution that allows anytime, anywhere reading for multiple readers simultaneously. This is the digital future.

  9. StarWalk Kids Media has a subscription model for K-8 eBooks of high quality, well-known authors and illustrators, with full access for a year to the entire list of books (and the list will double or triple during the year) at a very affordable price with no additional costs, multi-user access, device agnostic, streaming anywhere that the user has internet connectivity. (and by very affordable, I mean INEXPENSIVE!)

    Seymour Simon, author, founder and partner StarWalk Kids Media

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