Why isn’t every book available as an ebook at the library?

I’m writing this to help librarians explain to patrons why every single ebook available in Amazon is not available at the library.

At my LPOW, I was the person who handled all the downloadable stuff.  I selected all the ebooks, all the downloadable audio, I looked for new sources, I monitored trends in the market.  I also answered patrons’ questions about why we didn’t always buy what they wanted.  I did that a lot.  Not because I didn’t want to buy what they asked for, but because what they asked for wasn’t available.

Background stuff here.  My LPOW is a medium-sized public library in Florida and reasonably well funded.  They have also developed a very nicely responsible kind of human-powered Patron Directed Acquisitions.  I received 20-60 requests per week for ebooks and downloadable audio.  Every selector received that many requests for whatever they selected, I just said “no” more than anyone else.  Not because I wanted to, not because the library couldn’t afford to purchase what was requested, but because the material wasn’t available in the library marketplace for various weird reasons that were harder and harder to explain to colleagues, let alone patrons.

The Harper Collins issue has had one good side effect.  It has raised consciousness among librarians about the fact that two of the big six publishers, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, are not available in the library lending space at all as far as ebooks are concerned.  On the April 1 online NYT best seller list for Fiction, two of the top 15 are from St. Martin’s, a Macmillan imprint, and not available to libraries.  The non-fiction list has two titles from S&S, likewise not available to libraries.

However, as loud as the outcry has been about Harper Collins sudden change regarding libraries, at least they are still talking to us.  Macmillan and S&S are not at the table.  How many libraries would jump at the chance to make the bestsellers and backlist from those publishers available at the same deal that is condemned from Harper?

The issues with making ebooks available are much more complicated than a simple yes or no based on publisher, HC notwithstanding.  Some “big name” authors from publishers that do operate in the library space do not make their latest works available until after the title is off the hardcover bestseller list.  It’s an observable pattern, one that I saw over two years of purchasing.  James Patterson’s latest two books, Toys and Tick Tock, are not available to libraries.  His earlier books are available.  The same is true for other authors.

The explanation to patrons that even though they can see on Amazon or Barnes and Noble that an ebookis available for them to buy, but the library can’t buy it to lend to them, can be a hard sell.  After all, libraries buy books and lend them to patrons all the time, why shouldn’t it be the same with ebooks?  At least from the patron’s point of view.

This all comes back to the belief that library lending costs publishers in their bottom line.  I’ve seen various statistics, all sliced and diced depending on who is trying to make which argument.  Libraries create readers.  Libraries hand-sell.  Libraries bring audiences to books and authors, especially new and mid-list authors.  Publishers want to talk about the bestsellers, and libraries want to talk about the totality.  This is an apples and oranges argument.

And no one brings up audio.  According to the statistics I’ve seen, libraries are the big market for unabridged audio.  Hasn’t anyone noticed that Harper Collins didn’t reduce the lending limit on their downloadable audio?

There are other issues surrounding the whole process of libraries making ebooks available to patrons.  The process with print books is pretty much worked out.  Libraries are able to order three months or more pre-publication, and users expect that a new book will be in the catalog three months or so before it comes out, and people who want to read it first (or second, or twenty third) place holds on it.  Three months out, it’s usually pretty certain that a print book is actually going to get published and be available.  Not 100%, but reasonably so.

Ebooks don’t work that way.  I couldn’t order three months ahead, even if I knew something was coming out, and I was reasonably certain it would be available.  A few things might be available pre-pub a week, or occasionally a little longer.  But, even though I could be almost certain that a given author’s ebook would be available on the print release date (J.D. Robb or Jonathan Kellerman), I had no way of being 100% certain, or ordering the title and making it available for holds.  There are no automatic order plans for ebooks the way there are for print books, or even for downloadable audio.  I had to wait, and so did the public.  I also had to explain.  And saying I know but I don’t know, or I’m pretty sure but not absolute sure, or I think so but our suppliers won’t tell us until the release date, makes the library look stupid by not getting a new supplier.  Except, of course, there is a paucity of suppliers for popular content in the library market space.

So, it’s not just the usability issues.  The end-user side is getting better, although it still has a way to go.  But the back-end functionality, and the issues surrounding it, and explaining them, to end users and to colleagues, is downright painful.

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