Librarian Patience Has Run out on E-Book Lending Issues, Library Association Says

Patience has run out for librarians around the unsolved issue of e-book lending at libraries, according to American Library Association president Maureen Sullivan.

Speaking at a private gathering of publishers organized by the Association of American Publishers, Sullivan was explaining why earlier this week the ALA sent a strongly worded open letter to publishers about the need to figure out way for publishers to sell libraries e-books for “equitable use at a reasonable price.”

Later in the week, the AAP sent its own letter in response to the ALA letter, citing anti-trust concerns and other reasons for a lack of collective publisher action and criticizing the ALA’s letter in light of the private audience the association would have the AAP’s New York offices on 5th Avenue later that week.

While squabbling publicly with crossing missives, behind closed doors, the ALA and AAP played nicely, thanking each other for the event and for past support. A video was played at the beginning of the meeting praising cooperation on an issue both organizations support: Banned Book Week.

Publishers in the room, however, were not so conciliatory.

An executive from Perseus Book Group who did not identify herself said, “our executives are confused as to what is a library?” She cited concerns that the free and wide availability of e-books to library patrons could undercut publisher business.

Tim McCall, vice president of online sales and marketing, digital sales at Penguin Group USA, criticized the ALA’s supposed stance, as written into its letter earlier in the week, that e-books should should be available to libraries under the same business models as print books.

“We recognize that e-books are a different character than books in print,” said Sullivan, clarifying the ALA’s position. “We want to ensure with e-books that there is equitable access and that access is at a reasonable price.”

But the most pointed questioning came from Wiley’s director of digital business development Peter Balis.

“When will the ALA start proposing to us some best practices on what models you think will work from your digital solutions working group? You put a lot on us and it’s created a lot of chaos and clearly it’s [e-book library lending] broken. We have twelve different models,” he said. “You have to come back to us with more than just ‘equitable access at a fair price.'”

As the question was being posed, many heads in the publisher-heavy audience were nodding in assent.

Bob Wolven, associate university librarian at Columbia University and head of the ALA digital working group agreed that it was incumbent now upon librarians to think of models that can work for both publishers and librarians. Wolven also referred to a document issued to the public by the ALA in August but sent to six of the largest U.S. publishers months earlier reviewing the state of e-book library lending and proposing several new business models for publishers to consider.

The document, titled EBook Business Models for Public Libraries, includes a list of three essential characteristics that libraries will look for in plans to buy e-books from publishers — inclusion of all titles, enduring rights (the option to own the e-book) and integration of e-books into the existing library processes — but no concrete recommendations on models.

The business model suggestions have to “come from you and [have] to be a lot more specific than what I’ve heard here. I challenge you with that,” said Balis.

“That’s a good challenge,” said Wolvin.

Balis again confronted the ALA delegation on the mission of libraries, questioning whether e-book access was for the “less fortunate” that libraries are, in part, there to serve or for “wealthy residents of Greenwich [Conn.] who just want to have a lot of nice, free access to a lot of books?”

Sullivan answered that libraries serve the communities that they are located in and that many are struggling to figure out what they should be in the context of the digital content revolution and dwindling library resources.

“If we had our way, everything that you published would be available to everyone, but it’s not possible for us to do that,” she said.

The meeting occurred against the backdrop of slow but steady movement on the part of the publishers in attempting to solve the problem of e-book library lending.

Just this week, it came out that Macmillan, which does not make any of its e-book titles available to libraries, would engage in a pilot program for selling e-books to libraries. Hachette and Penguin also recently announced pilot programs. Random House and HarperCollins both already sell e-books to libraries — though not without stipulations that have rankled the library community. Of the six largest publishers in the U.S., only Simon & Schuster does not currently make its e-books available to libraries.

“We are very heartened by the news that pilots are underway and we’d like to see more of them,” said Sullivan.

While there has been progress in the eyes of the ALA, it hasn’t been without setbacks. It recently came to light that Hachette, which makes its back-list of books available to libraries for purchase as e-books, raised the prices on its digital offerings to libraries by an average of 104%.

The progress, however, hasn’t been fast enough for the ALA’s constituents, who are now frustrated in a leadership that they once believed in to represent their interests to publishers.

When asked what the ALA would do now that librarian patience has run out, Sullivan said, “We’ll be giving careful thought in the next few weeks as to what we will do. Our hope is we’ll see a greater response [from publishers] to some of the needs and concerns that we have.”

15 thoughts on “Librarian Patience Has Run out on E-Book Lending Issues, Library Association Says

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Perhaps the ALA should forget the major publishers for now and focus their attention on working out agreements with less risk-adverse small to medium-sized publishers. Make that into a win-win situation for authors, publishers, and libraries and the giants will have to lumberingly come aboard.

    A small publisher is more open to visibility in libraries as a path to more sales than a giant with a huge advertising budget. And keep in mind that not every book is a fluffy novel that’s read only once. I’m working on one called Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Hospitals. I’d be quite open to making it available free to libraries. First, because I’d like to help those girls. Second, because the book is useful and detailed enough, I think a library checkout would increase print and ebook sales.

    I’m also reminded of when Reagan was head of the Screen Actors Guild and the industry faced a strike over residuals, meaning whether actors would get paid when movies made before TV appeared on the air. He knew that one major studio head was willing to bargain. That forced all the others into a tight spot. If they held out, they’d be hit with a strike and their business would go to a competitor.

    Libraries might find a similar divide-and-conquer tactic helpful. They could make most of their buys from the most helpful publishers, small and large. They might even created a category of ‘most favored’ publishers, for whom they include a link from their book webpage to the retailer that the publisher chooses. To get in that category, a publisher would have to offer ebooks at reasonable prices under reasonable conditions.

    Finally, libraries might want to help their budget crunch with a clever move. Let patrons who buy a particular ebook for their library, get first check-out rights. Those who buy ebooks to read them once would get a chance to help their library and promote their favorite authors. And if they ever wanted to read it again, it’d be there waiting for them.

    1. Matthew Sawyer

      I agree with Michael W. Perry. Libraries should favor ess risk-adverse small to medium-sized publishers. It’s only American to encourage unknown and beginning others – many of whom aren’t tainted by popular marketplace demands. I’m an author, too, and may I suggest ebooks from Smashwords. Most of my work are licensed with Creative Commons. Many are free. And they can be lent and shared with everyone. C’mon, folks. Help the little guys and gals rise to fame!

        1. K Donelan

          They nodded in “ascent”? To where are they ‘ascent’ing? 1 physical book= unlimited 2-week loans. 1 e-book should also = unlimited 2-week loans.

  2. Renee

    Larger libraries are looking into developing their own ebook systems and contacting authors and smaller publishers directly.

    I have heard of others but don’t have the articles at hand.

  3. Donna Cook

    Balis again confronted the ALA delegation on the mission of libraries, questioning whether e-book access was for the “less fortunate” that libraries are, in part, there to serve or for “wealthy residents of Greenwich [Conn.] who just want to have a lot of nice, free access to a lot of books?”

    Sullivan answered that libraries serve the communities that they are located in and that many are struggling to figure out what they should be in the context of the digital content revolution and dwindling library resources.

    I am a school librarian for a small Texas school in the woods of East Texas. We are trying to get eBooks to our students and staff who are definitely not “wealthy residents of Greenwich…” Our students and staff are in fact the polar opposites. Publishers who raise rates on eBooks to sell only to wealthy readers are making unreasonable profit off a product and missing the fabulous opportunity of building a market for eBooks with the whole population, not just the wealthy. While ALA and publishers are wrangling over this conflict (access vs. profit) school libraries are generally forgotten with their unique needs and opportunities (access for a growing, diverse market).

  4. Rebecca Wilcox

    ALA needs to look at what Douglas County Library in Colorado has done. Jamie LaRue has been a leader in developing a useful model for libraries and in offering to share what he has developed. It allows libraries to get away from distributors like Overdrive who add their requirements on top of publishers and keep libraries at a disadvantage. Check it out!

  5. Aaron Sakovich

    From the article:

    “The business model suggestions have to “come from you and [have] to be a lot more specific than what I’ve heard here. I challenge you with that,” said Balis.

    This statement isn’t even specious; it’s just flat out absurd.

    Why in the world should the customer come up with a business model for the seller? Did the publishers ask this question of libraries when Gutenberg invented movable type?

    The ALA has already said what they need for ebooks to succeed in the library. It should now be incumbent upon the businesses to find a way to be profitable while fulfilling the libraries’ needs. If they can’t meet the needs of the customers, then they deserve to shut their doors and give the business over to someone who can.

    Just my personal opinion.

  6. Diane Bronson

    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.

  7. Michelle Mears

    OWNERSHIP is the only thing that legally allows us to be a library. Pay per use leads down the slippery slope of charging users per use, which moves us far away from FREE public access. There are complex issues to work out, and I think everyone is making sincere efforts EXCEPT publishers. Which publisher rep was quoted as saying that she didn’t know what a library was? What? How about Penguin thinking a while back that libraries were just putting open links to e-books on their web sites without patron verification? Publishers are so out of touch with what is going on in libraries. But that’s kind of our fault, for not wanting them to know. Imagine if they wanted us to keep track of circulations of physical books and pay accordingly? It’s not too far fetched if we accept it for e-books. And e-books are not for the rich, they are for everyone. From low-income kids who get iPads to use for school to retired bus drivers who want to be able to change the size of text for readability, if they have a device they want a book to go on it.

    And you may not have heard it, but from the very beginnings of DIALOG and other database subscriptions librarians have whimpered and whined about paying access feees and not owning the information we were paying for. How about feeling trapped into paying whatever price increases data providers have dreamed up because you couldn’t drop that database without being lynched in your community or on your campus? We never liked it, but we did it, and now it’s coming around to bite us in the a**.

    I’m just happy to see people talking about the issues. Sooner or later authors will weigh in and if we can get them on our sides, they might be able to put it in their contracts to sell e-books to libraries, because they know we are their biggest, unpaid PR department. Or they might keep the e-book rights to themselves and sell directly to us. But then we’ve got to have a place to put it don’t we? You think I want to maintain a server and an access portal? No thanks!

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