E-Books in Libraries: Ownership Versus Access
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