Ebooks in Public Libraries: Whither, Which, How

The Digital Public Library of America discussion list has kicked into high gear again, in anticipation of an in-person meeting at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in mid-January, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

The piece of the discussion that has caught my interest concerns the future availability of ebooks for public libraries to loan to patrons — and whether lending ebooks to patrons should be part of any public library future.

Statistics are showing double the ereader penetration in the US population from this time last year, not counting multi-function tablet (i.e. iPad) use. Libraries really don’t have the luxury to pretend this isn’t happening. The question remains what they can do about it.

The other question is, what do libraries provide? The “Big 6” publishers are increasingly skittish about providing ebooks for public libraries to lend.

  • Only Random House just plain lets libraries buy their ebooks to lend to patrons.
  • Harper Collins sells to libraries, and every time the copy has been checked out 26 times, the library has to buy it again.
  • Which puts Harper Collins ahead of Penguin and Hachette, who have both stopped selling ebooks to libraries.
  • And even further ahead of Simon and Schuster and Macmillan, who have never sold ebooks to libraries.

But back to the DPLA, which has been discussing the future of ebook publishing as it relates to libraries. There’s been a particular thread about commercial fiction and public library patrons.

The assumption that keeps niggling at me is that all the current trends will continue, and that the only changes we will see will be for the worse from the perspective of the library as institution.

My interpretation of the trendline being predicted is that the publishers will continue their unfortunate circling of their wagons, and that the lending rights that libraries have traditionally enjoyed with physical materials will disappear in the electronic age as publishers attempt to preserve their profit margins. Brilliance Audio’s scheduled January 31, 2012 withdrawal from the library download market is another step in this trend, as is the support of many, many publishers in the library marketplace for SOPA.

Publishers are worrying about their profits because those profits are based on a physical distribution model, and the physical distribution model is collapsing. And the publishers are becoming less optimistic about digital being their savior than they used to be, at least according to recent reports out of Digital Book World. So they are hanging on to every penny they can. Publishers have always feared that books borrowed from libraries have represented sales lost. But with physical books, sales to libraries were impossible to prevent.

With ebooks (and e-audiobooks) publishers don’t have to sell to libraries. So some of them are increasingly choosing not to — especially the big ones who believe that their authors don’t need libraries to help them develop a following.

But there are a lot of authors who do want their books, especially their ebooks, in libraries. I was interviewed by author Lindsay Buroker for an article on her blog about how self-published authors could get their books into their local libraries.

Self-published authors and authors who are published by small independent publishers are searching eagerly for ways to get their books into libraries. Increasingly those books are exclusively ebooks. Many of those authors would even be willing to donate a copy to their local public library (maybe not every public library, mind you, but the one in their own hometown) just to get readers.

In the print world, they used to be able to donate actual books. But in the digital world, what’s the mechanism? They don’t want to donate rights, they want to donate a couple of copies, and quite likely DRM-free copies at that, but how can they do it?

And for anyone who doesn’t think there is money in self-published authors, remember that Amazon has offered special incentives for self-published authors to make their work exclusively available through the Kindle Selects Program for 90-day periods.

This a a world that is changing faster than the “Big 6” can keep up with, which is why they are circling those wagons.

So, in this corner, we have the big publishers who either haven’t entered the library market or are sounding a retreat.

And in this corner, we have a lot of independent publishers and self-published authors who would love to enter the library space and are hungry for readers–readers that libraries know how to provide.

Libraries need  the equivalent of Smashwords for libraries. This may turn out to be something like what OverDrive will be when the big publishers have dropped out of the library market, with the addition of a method for self-published authors to donate copies or for libraries to buy copies of their work and lend it.

From a library institutional perspective, the library would miss the big blockbuster books. But we may not be able to keep those no matter what we do.  What we would get is a lot of popular content of the type that public library patrons read, popular genre fiction of all types. It would even cost less for the library than the current model. It might even be possible to have enough material so that people would have to wait forever for an ebook.

Yes, it would be different from how public libraries do ebooks now. But the future is going to be different. The question is, can we work toward making it different in a way we can have some control over? Can we have a future with a chance at a win-win?

Strength in Unity

I’ve been following the debate about the potential “forking” of the Digital Public Library of America project. This is a project that is going to continue to generate a lot of intelligent commentary.

The name says it all. The excellent intention is to create a Digital Public Library for the U.S.  Based on following the listserv, there has been a lot of energy, which can sometimes seem to be more heat than light, invested in the determination of the definition of each individual word in that name–Digital, Public, Library, and I swear, sometimes even America.

But what would a Digital Public Library of America be? The phrase “Public Library” has a certain image in most people’s minds. For better or for ill, public libraries in America have become associated with best-sellers and helping kids with their homework, as well as storytimes for pre-schoolers.  That is not currently part of the vision of the DPLA.  So far, the Steering Committee has seemed primarily interested in more scholarly aspects of a potential DPLA, something more akin to an expanded American Memory project combined with Project Gutenberg and other out-of-print classic books.

This has led to discussions of a possible “fork” in the project, to dropping “Public” from the name, and to a therefore separate Public Library based DPLA-type project driven by Public Library needs.  The point-counterpoint argument on this topic was recently published by Library Journal.

There are cogent arguments both for and against a “fork” in the road.  But the arguments for the “fork” all seem to be based on human behavior. Academic librarians and public librarians are used to thinking and behaving in certain ways, and so we tend to go on doing so. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When I worked in Alaska, there was virtually no division between the academic librarians and public librarians in the Alaska Library Association. There simply weren’t enough of us to not work closely together. Also, we all crossed over from one type of library to another too often to not know how the other half lived and worked. When a big state conference attendance means 300 people, everyone knows everyone.

Nate Hill makes the point in his posting on the PLA blog that the Digital Public Library of America needs to be a big tent.  It is the libraries that will determine how its resources get used in each community.  Academic libraries will use its resources for scholarly purposes. Public libraries and their users will use its resources for a variety of purposes;some will, in fact, be scholarly, but others will be self-help, recreational, or whatever flights of fancy the user chooses. But first the resource needs to be there. And to paraphrase that famous movie line, “If we build it, they will come.”

This is going to be the Digital Public Library of America. As a public librarian, I know there are a lot of things that are important to public library users that will need to be included to make this truly a public library. But usage patterns are changing, and we need to move forward. A “fork” is not the answer. There is strength in unity. All types of libraries are currently being questioned about future relevancy in the face of the digital onslaught. The Digital Public Library of America is our collective answer–our future. We need to face that future together, not argue over who has the best seats at the table. Let’s set a table we all can sit at together.