International Ebook Month (don’t check your calendars, I made that up…but it feels right doesn’t it?) just keeps getting more and more interesting. A whole crop of hot new readers are just around the corner, the ongoing drama of Google Books vs. Just About Everybody is continuing, the expansion of the Kindle into some (but not all) international markets is at hand, more and more content is entering the Ebook market….I have been writing an awful lot about such topics lately. However, to go along with all of that, more and more people are writing and thinking about the dark, chewy good stuff that fills the Ebook cookie…formats and philosophy and the search for how to both evangelize and monetize Ebooks.
When many people, especially those of a certain age (such as myself) think of books, their minds will often turn to libraries, which now sadly seem to be in decline. In bygone days many of us had our first serious exposure to the pleasures of books and reading via our now underused local public library and considered getting our own library card an essential step into being a “big” boy or girl. Is that so different if the book is electronic rather than paper and pasteboard? Should it be? What role do libraries have in popularizing Ebooks and can Libraries use Ebooks to build public literacy? Can Ebooks “save” libraries from irrelevance in the age of the internet?
Good questions…but the answers thus far have been less than satisfying.
Motoko Rich at the Gray Lady (or the New York Times for those who don’t have newspaper fetishes) published an excellent piece on Ebook Lending today. In it, she very concisely lays out the current lending model that most libraries use for Ebooks…
Most digital books in libraries are treated like printed ones: only one borrower can check out an e-book at a time, and for popular titles, patrons must wait in line just as they do for physical books. After two to three weeks, the e-book automatically expires from a reader’s account.
Seems fair, doesn’t it?
Well, apparently many (perhaps most) big name publishers disagree with that model, and refuse to provide their Ebooks to libraries.
But some publishers worry that the convenience of borrowing books electronically could ultimately cut into sales of print editions.
“I don’t have to get in my car, go to the library, look at the book, check it out,” said John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, which publishes authors like Janet Evanovich, Augusten Burroughs and Jeffrey Eugenides. “Instead, I’m sitting in the comfort of my living room and can say, ‘Oh, that looks interesting’ and download it.”
As digital collections grow, Mr. Sargent said he feared a world in which “pretty soon you’re not paying for anything.” Partly because of such concerns, Macmillan does not allow its e-books to be offered in public libraries.
Simon & Schuster, whose authors include Stephen King and Bob Woodward, has also refrained from distributing its e-books to public libraries. “We have not found a business model that works for us and our authors,” said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman.
It is clear that someone in the publishing trades has been listening too long and too well to the RIAAs rants against digital music and assumed the same arguments could be directly applied to Ebooks. If the assumption that being able to borrow a book, in what ever format, would eliminate sales had been held in the past, than Ben Franklin might have just said “Buy the damn thing!” and stuck to stoves and kites rather than starting the first public library. In the past, it was always accepted that the library was an essential resource for exposing people to authors and ideas they might have never encountered if they had had to buy every book they read. Libraries are meant to be free and egalitarian, places where students and workers and the rich and the poor and anyone with the desire to expand their horizons can relax and lose themselves in new worlds and ideas through the written word. This is just as true for Ebooks as it is for printed books…and such intellectual journeys often lead directly to the sales the publishers seem so afraid they will lose, regardless of the media. My books shelves at home (and I have a lot of them) have always been filled with volumes by authors I first met on a whim at the library, and now so is my Stanza folder.
It sounds like publishers are condemning Ebooks for the very ease of use and convenience that is part of their appeal. Macmillan doesn’t like that people can access Ebooks from the comfort of their home? What, they feel that in order to read their books people should undergo some sort of physical trial, rather then painlessly and legally downloading the material? Indiana Jones and the Hardcover of Doom? “Don’t look in the Dewey decimal catalog, Indy!!!!”.
Apparently even if a publisher doesn’t bar their Ebooks from libraries, they may charge a premium for them which effectively does the same thing. According to Rich…
Some librarians object to the current pricing model because they often pay more for e-books than do consumers who buy them on Amazon or in Sony’s online store. Publishers generally charge the same price for e-books as they do for print editions, but online retailers subsidize the sale price of best sellers by marking them down to $9.99.
“ ‘The Lost Symbol’ is $9.99 on the Sony Reader book page, and I just paid $29.99 for that for the library,” said Robin Bradford, the collection development librarian at the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library. Ms. Bradford said she would consider buying additional digital copies if the price were lower. But “to buy nonphysical copies at the same price,” she said, “I just won’t do it.”
Of course the first thought that crossed my mind was “Why don’t librarians just use their budgets to buy from Amazon or other venues as consumers? That way they don’t have to pay so much and can expand their Ebook collections to their heart’s content.”
For the answer, I spoke to a dear friend of mine who happens to be a radical librarian on the front lines of digital content debate and posed the Amazon question to her. She said the following…
Hmmm … there is some direct buying from Amazon I bet but as someone who has worked in technical services (at libraries)… you tend to go to the publishers or to special middlemen called jobbers because libraries buy tons of books each year, and they have to be shipped and processed efficiently in order to undergo cataloging and all the minutiae librarians do before the book goes on the shelf. While there are lots of books that are purchased due to a single decision, the vast majority, regardless of type of library, are based on packages and subscriptions.
I think it’s a matter of Amazon being a personal retailer. Their business model is based on thousands and thousands of people making small orders, not a few hundred making incredibly big orders and library purchasing systems are arcane. Whether you’re talking public libraries (gov run) or academic ones, purchase orders are the currency. Using a department credit card to buy an item is so fraught with explanations and paperwork and the like and I doubt Amazon wants to cater to such a particular market when it has its distribution system down pat. The economies of scale for distribution and processing, at both Amazon and at a lot of libraries, probably doesn’t mesh well.
So perhaps what really concerns publishers regarding Ebooks in libraries are not intellectual property questions at all, but fears of killing the golden goose. It sounds like the closed ecosystem they have going made up of Publishers, Jobber middlemen and Library (read government) Purchase Orders is too lucrative for them to risk upsetting or subverting it. Of course, I can’t really blame them. Publishers are not the bad guys in this story, they are just behind the times. Things have been tough in Publishing for quite awhile and I am sure subscription deals like that have kept many companies afloat when private citizens aren’t buying books…but wouldn’t that make Ebooks as marketing tools all the more essential? Don’t they see that people are more likely to read new authors or genres when they can borrow them first from the library, and are more likely to purchase books when they already know and like the author or genre? If Ebooks make libraries more convenient , that will only expand the public’s book buying tastes. Is that so difficult a cause and effect to understand?
Some publishers seem to see that. According to Rich again…
Some publishers agree that library e-books, like print versions, can attract new customers. “We’ve always strongly believed that there is a conversion point where they do start to buy their own,” said Malle Vallik, the director of digital content at Harlequin Enterprises, the romance publisher.
Harlequin gets it. Perhaps there is a very good reason why Ebook sales seem to be dominated by romance titles. If companies like Harlequin realize the marketing and business potential of Ebooks, than they are more likely to provide their vast collections digitally to feed the habits of Ebook fans…but which is the cause and which is the effect? In the comments to my recent “So….Whatcha Reading” post, reader gaildayton had this to say….
Surveys have shown that romance readers read More as a whole, and read more kinds of books than those who do not read romance. And those who read LOTS of books, like many romance readers do, are more likely to purchase e-books which do not require actual physical space to store them.
So companies like Harlequin know that their target audience, romance readers, go through a lot of books and therefore not only utilize Ebooks for convenience but also likely make regular use of their library card, so it makes sense for Harlequin to put their Ebook titles in libraries at reasonable prices. Harlequin also knows that their authors tend to be very prolific, and that their readership tend to buy all the books they can find by their favorite authors or in their favorite genres, and are most likely to buy large numbers of books when they are in Ebook format…so it is good business to expose them to more authors via library Ebooks. Everybody wins….readers, Harlequin, authors and libraries. That sounds like the “business model that works for us and our authors” that Simon & Shuster claims to be looking for but can’t find.
If more mainstream publishers like Simon & Shuster learned from the model Harlequin is using, we could rapidly find ourselves in a new reading renaissance. Prices on Ebook readers are dropping, and most people of all ages can now use their phones or iPods for reading as well so the time for a new “Electronic Library” paradigm is now. Being able to sample hot new authors and titles conveniently through Ebooks via the library will not only expand the paying readership of those authors (and therefore publishers) but also encourage people to read more and make libraries once again centers of the community, furthering knowledge and literacy. What a perfect way to restore the love of books and libraries in people today.
Sounds like a love story I would be happy to buy…after reading it from my local electronic library first of course.