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Getting E-books Into Libraries: What Librarians Want and Vendors Offer

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Say “e-books” and “libraries,” and independent book publishers are quick to express frustration. OverDrive dominates e-book distribution to libraries, and many small publishers struggle to get this vendor to sell their titles.

Independent publishers also face two other obstacles when marketing e-books:

  • Few libraries buy direct from publishers.
  • Few libraries buy e-only titles.

Discouraged? Here are two more roadblocks.

First, library budgets are tight, and for most systems, buying e-books means forgoing some print titles. Almost every library replying to a recent Library Journal survey reported buying some e books, but few said their overall budgets had increased to accommodate significant digital purchases.

Second, the Library Journal survey shows that many libraries have difficulty creating awareness and thus demand for digital formats, and that patrons who do check out e-books often require time-consuming help with the download process.

Despite these hurdles, an increasing number of options exist for getting e-books into library collections, and libraries do express commitment to acquiring e-formats. What follows tells you what genres and categories libraries want, what the most popular digital formats are, and what vendors handle e-book sales to libraries.

Sales Drivers

The key words in selling e-books to libraries are

  • Adult fiction
  • Patron requests
  • Discounted prices
  • Kindle and tablet
  • Distribution via major vendors

So say the 500-plus libraries that responded to a recent survey and the dozens of independent publishers and library vendors I’ve heard from in recent months. Here are some specifics:

Fiction, especially adult fiction, is what libraries are most likely to buy in digital format. Today, 74 percent of library e-book collections are fiction, compared to 57 percent of print books, according to the 2014 Library Journal e-book survey.

The bar charts in this article were excerpted with permission from Library Journal's annual survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries

The bar charts in this article were excerpted with permission from Library Journal’s annual survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries

What are your top three circulating or most requested nofiction e-book categories?

What are your top three circulating or most requested nofiction e-book categories?

Which categories of ebooks does your library currently offer users?

Which categories of ebooks does your library currently offer users?

Overall, the emphasis is on adult titles. Although the libraries responding to the LJ survey said they are increasing the number of YA e-books they offer, and although some vendors report success with digital books for young children, librarians say they remain committed to print for picture books. “Young parents very much value print materials for their children rather than e books,” said one librarian quoted in the survey report.

Partly because of limited budgets, some libraries order certain e-books only in response to patron requests. As the survey report explains, “Patron-driven acquisition” has increased to an all-time high of 31 percent. Purchasing a title as it’s requested avoids a lot of second-guessing and misallocation of resources. During 2014, 42 percent of responding libraries used patron-driven acquisition for e-books.

Emily Vickerson at Allium Press in Forest Park, IL, documents the importance of patron requests for sales to libraries. “When I initially contacted OverDrive I was told that we were too small to be included in its catalog,” she says. “However, a month or so later OverDrive came back to us and said that libraries were requesting our books. We had an initial surge of sales when Over- Drive promoted us as a new publishing partner, and we continue to have a few sales every month.”

OverDrive encourages publishers to promote their titles’ availability on its platform and with publicity, advertising, and trade shows, says its marketing and communication director David Burleigh. “We provide promotion for publisher partners via merchandising in newsletters and pointof- sale advertising in the online catalog,” Burleigh explains.

For indie publishers without funds for trade show booths and large ads, generating patron requests makes promotion more important than ever. E-book distributor Smashwords, which makes self-published titles available to libraries through OverDrive, emphasizes the importance of friends and fans requesting small publishers’ e-books at their local libraries, and the importance of publishers contacting their own libraries about ordering e-editions.

Reporting Mixed Results

Despite Allium’s experience, such personal appeals don’t necessarily pay off in sales. Jay Hartman, editor-in-chief at San Francisco’s Untreed Reads, “a digital-first publisher” that distributes both its own titles and those of smaller publishers, recalls his experience with a library on the East Coast where a group was going to read Bogart: In Search of My Father.

Since the library owned only one copy of the out-of-print paperback edition, “the only way anyone was going to be able to read this book was if they bought the e-book or checked out a library copy,” Hartman says. “But the library hadn’t bought the e-book, and although I phoned the person in charge of the reading group, she informed me she wasn’t in a position to recommend which books to buy. I pointed out that she was leading a reading group with a book they didn’t have.”

After much runaround, Hartman reports, “The library never bought any copies of the e-book. Ever. How they managed to lead a discussion group about the book is beyond me.” Even more frustrating for Hartman: The title is in the OverDrive catalog, and that library works with OverDrive.

“I’ve found libraries much less open to authors than they were even a few years ago,” says Sherban Young, author/publisher at MysteryCaper Press in Columbia, MD. “In 2011, when I had five books available, many libraries in my area and beyond were happy to buy multiple copies. Now, with three more books, I can’t even get libraries to answer my e-mail.”

Young attributes the change to an everincreasing number of solicitations from publishers. Carrie Russell, who directs the American Library Association’s Program on Public Access to Information, agrees: “There’s an overabundance of content, which makes it difficult to ensure that every possible acquisition is adequately vetted.”

At the Spokane County Library District in Washington State, collection development librarian Sheri Boggs echoes Russell. “We tend to rely on requests and locality when it comes to smaller publishers and selfpublished content—there’s just so much of it to consider. I know self-publishing isn’t the same as the independent or academic presses, and I encourage the independent publishers and academic presses to approach OverDrive, and then maybe follow up with e-mail to our collection services selectors.”

Some librarians are sympathetic to publishers’ marketing efforts. As Erin Callahan, a senior librarian at Minnesota’s Hennepin County Library, said in an e-mail to me, “You aren’t alone in wondering about how we select and obtain e-books!”

Her colleague Gail Mueller Schultz, coordinating librarian for the Hennepin system, explained that because its downloadable collections are hosted by outside vendors,
the system can provide only titles available from the vendors’ catalogs. “Our selectors look at top selling independent titles featured in publications like Shelf Awareness and Library Journal,” she says, but “the limited availability of e-book versions from our vendors limits our ability to purchase them.”

Although Hartman believes that indie and academic presses can sell to libraries if in-demand titles are in the right distributors’ catalogs, he has strong opinions about what besides patron requests makes an indie title likely to be purchased.

“Here’s some of what we’ve heard directly from libraries,” he says.

  • Reviews count, and the reviews have to be in major media, such as Publishers Weekly. “Which is amusing because most big magazines don’t review e-books,” says Hartman.
  • Winners of significant awards have a better chance of being purchased.
  • Many e-book publishers are selling romance and erotica, which are not genres that libraries typically buy in high volume, so the library market potential is small for such publishers.
  • Collection development staffs are not interested in publisher sales calls. “Not even in authors themselves calling their hometown libraries.”

And if you perceive a challenge in selling your e-books to libraries, Hartman declares, “That’s not just a perception— it’s 100 percent reality. You can’t figure out who the decision makers are; nobody will take your calls, and everybody you do talk to tells you there’s no way for them to recommend titles for purchase.”

Despite his frustration, the Untreed Reads editor has progress to report: “Once you’ve got a library buying a couple of your titles, you get on its radar and you pretty much stay there. We have a lot of new libraries buying e-books from us each month, and there is a ton of repeat business. If you have a big name in your stable of authors that’s a big help.”

Pricing Issues

It’s no surprise that librarians are looking for the best possible prices. Both the LJ survey and an earlier, more comprehensive survey by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services show a continuing trend of cuts in libraries’ personnel and acquisition budgets.

Responding to the LJ survey, librarians used adjectives such as prohibitive and exorbitant when describing e-book pricing, and their comments are summarized as, “The biggest impediment to adding or expanding e-book offerings is money.”

Librarians want to have e-content available from all publishers along with print, without checkout limits or expirations and with a discount. But there’s no evidence that they buy on price alone. A Smashwords press release claims, “Faced with the option of purchasing a single James Patterson novel for around $40, or ten thrillers from today’s most popular indie authors at $4 each, libraries now have exciting new options to build patron-pleasing e-book collections.”

As noted, though, librarians want to satisfy reader demand, and those participating in the LJ survey emphasize that patron demand for titles like James Patterson’s is stronger than the demand for titles by unknowns: “Patrons don’t understand why we can’t purchase all 20 top bestsellers [in digital format] like we do for print,” one librarian observed. But as Russell says, “If 90 people want copies of Fifty Shades of Gray, then librarians would prefer to have 90 copies available.”

In some cases, e-book purchases are limited because prices for e-books are many times the retail prices for single copies. Heather Teysko, assistant director at Califa (the San Mateo library-owned service bureau that buys direct), says publishers of high-demand titles sometimes make the price for libraries double the list price. The prices of digital editions in relation to print editions’ prices were cited as the most important factor in purchase decisions by 38 of the 50 librarians recently surveyed by John Wiley & Sons.

Format Options

Talking about e-formats, many sources say the only ones that matter are Kindle and tablet. “Format wars are leveling off, and it’s pretty much down to Kindle versus the tablets,” LJ’s report said. “The popularity of dedicated e-readers with patrons is still high, but our research shows that tablets have quickly overtaken them to become the device of choice for readers.” Mitchell Davis, the founder and chief business officer of Charleston, SC, Library e-book distributor Bibliolabs, concurs: “We’re not formatting for other readers now.”

That holds true overseas as well. The two formats popular in the United Kingdom are the iPad and Kindle, with the iPad now more popular, according to a late 2014 report by The Bookseller, a British book industry magazine. Its Digital Census, described as “the annual tracker of how the book business is managing the digital shift,” includes comments from more than 1,000 people in publishing.

Given the features of their books, some publishers question how popular their e-book versions would be with libraries. “Many of our books are full-color illustrated, which limits the number of readers that have the capacity to access them,” says Michael Weaver, who is the trade and export sales manager at Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, VT. The company has about 220 titles in the OverDrive catalog and also works with 3M.

Author/publisher Janet McCrea Dieman at Interactive Learning in Cincinnati mentions a different constraint. “My e-books are designed using iBooks Author, an advanced software program available from Apple that allows for media-rich interactive books,” she explains. “As such, they can’t be distributed by most of the systems that make e-books available in public and school libraries.”

Many librarians express frustration with e-book purchasing and downloading processes in general. As one wrote in response to the LJ survey, “Our users want an easier method for downloading e-books; they get confused by all the formats and their different devices.”

The variety of proprietary software creates a huge demand for patron assistance, says the ALA’s Russell. “The staff time spent today with downloading is typical of what happened in academic libraries twenty years ago with databases.” But the situation is improving.

Sales and Distribution Channels

Distribution is the major issue for independent publishers trying to get e-books into libraries and for collection development librarians. Unlike print books, which libraries sometimes purchase direct even from single-title publishers or online retailers such as Amazon.com, e-books are almost always acquired through distributors. Because few of them want to work with the smallest publishers, many titles are simply not readily available to libraries.

From which vendor(s) does your library acquire ebooks?

From which vendor(s) does your library acquire ebooks?

The Cleveland-based retailer of digital and audio editions that dominates e-book sales to public libraries offers “a number of ways for small publishers to engage,” says Burleigh.

One option is getting a title accepted for direct purchase by OverDrive, using what it calls its “Content Reserve Portal.” Terms are outlined on OverDrive’s website, under “Business and Technical Guidelines and Criteria for Prospective Content
Reserve Suppliers,” which specifies that the minimum discount from suggested retail price is 50 percent, and says that the average discount for nonreturnable sales of trade material is 55 percent.

The second option Burleigh suggests is using the same distributor for e-books as for print books. He recommends Independent Publishers Group (www.ipgbook.com) and Perseus (perseusbooksgroup.com). Because these distributors typically contract on an exclusive basis, this second option will not work for publishers who self-distribute their print editions to wholesalers and sell direct to consumers.

Another distribution option with OverDrive is via Untreed Reads, which handles e-books from many small publishers that can’t meet OverDrive’s requirements. “Let’s face it,” Hartman says, “OverDrive is the Amazon of the library world. You’re going to have to deal with it if you want library sales.”

Based in Los Gatos, CA, Smashwords distributes self-published titles. In 2014, it arranged for 200,000 Smashwords titles to be available via OverDrive. In its announcement, Smashwords said, “[This is] a big deal for thousands of small independent presses around the globe who now have a convenient onramp into the OverDrive network. Millions of library patrons will now have access to the amazing diversity and quality of the Smashwords catalog.”

How likely librarians are to select a single title or a single publisher’s titles from the Smashwords/OverDrive catalog is unknown. In its announcement, Smashwords referred to bulk buys: “OverDrive and Smashwords will create curated buy-lists [that] libraries can use to purchase the most popular indie authors and titles. Libraries will soon have the option, for example, to purchase the top hundred YA fantasy novels.”

Previous sales via Smashwords are used to determine popularity, which raises the question of how newly launched titles will qualify for the buy lists.

“Signing with Smashwords is just about the easiest way most libraries have to buy the many new titles hitting the bestseller lists that don’t happen to be issued by any of the usual publisher suspects,” wrote James LaRue, until recently director of Colorado’s Douglas County Libraries, in a 2014 blog post for American Libraries magazine.
There are no setup fees with Smashwords. Its marketing director, Jim Azevedo, explains that how much publishers earn depends on whether titles are sold direct by Smashwords or through an aggregator. They get 45 percent of whatever price they set for titles sold through Smashwords to e-book distributor Baker & Taylor Axis 360 and Over- Drive. For titles sold through Smashwords Library Direct, because no intermediate aggregator is involved, publishers receive 70 percent of list price.

The e-book service that co-sponsored the Library Journal survey, Freading is run by the Fairfax, VA, company Library Ideas. The service is available only via the websites of subscribing libraries, which prepay for tokens for its patrons. Freading describes the tokens as “a virtual currency” that patrons exchange for downloads. “Your library gives you a weekly allotment … When you choose a book, the amount of tokens labeled on the book is deducted from your account.” The “cost” of a book in tokens is assigned by the

A digital book vendor created by the same team that founded BookSurge (which was later sold to Amazon and rebranded as CreateSpace), BiblioLabs does not sell single titles through its BiblioBoard; it sells only “modules,” which are collections by genre and publisher, such as all the GLBTQ titles from a single press. “Prepacks” is what founder and chief business officer Mitchell Davis called them in a recent interview. His goal is to have 250 to 500 titles per module. Prices are set by publishers, with one publisher currently offering a module of 1,800 titles for $250 annually. “That’s our most aggressively priced collection,” Davis said.

Although publishers must have at least 250 available e-books to participate in the BiblioBoard program, BiblioLabs is now working on a new “SELF-e” option that will let self-publishers apply to have their titles available in modules BiblioLabs creates. Davis says that selection in SELF-e guarantees that an author’s book will be available to those libraries in the author’s home state that have signed up with BiblioLabs, but this is not an avenue to sales. Biblioboard.com describes SELF-e as a royalty-free “marketing and discovery service aimed at helping authors build an audience of readers.”

(Self-published authors with a track record of appearances on such prestigious bestseller lists as the New York Times will soon have another option through BiblioLabs, which is launching Indie Rock Stars this winter with a prepack of about fifty top-selling books.)

Other BiblioLabs options for getting indie-published e-books to libraries include Total BooX and library consortia that are buying direct, says James LaRue.

Total Boox
This company works with such larger independents as IBPA members Berrett-Koehler and Sourcebooks, and with (as this was written) four library systems and the State Library of Kansas, which has hundreds of member systems.

As LaRue explains, “Total BooX lets patrons download a boatload of e-books, … [and] then read at their leisure. The library pays only for what patrons actually read (which tends to be about 10 percent of what people check out).” Mirela Roncevic, who is director of content and publisher relations for Total BooX, says libraries are charged on the basis of the book’s retail price, so if a patron reads half of a $20 book, the library pays $10.

The charge applies each time a book is read. “Our adult fiction collection is very strong, spanning every genre there is: mystery, thrillers, erotica, science fiction, literary fiction, courtroom drama, fantasy, urban fiction, YA fiction,” Roncevic adds, and more than half of the titles borrowed are adult fiction. There’s no charge to add an e-book to the Total BooX platform.


Several other companies offer e-book distribution services, and all of them emphasize that they provide books from major commercial publishers and/or government documents and academic publications. They include 3M Cloud Library (3m.com/us/library/); EBSCO e-books (ebscohost.com/e-books); Baker & Taylor Axis 360 (btol.com/axis360.cfm); ProQuest ebrary (ebrary.com/corp/); and Ingram MyiLibrary (myilibrary.com/Home.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2f).

Another vendor, the Gale Virtual Reference Library/Cengage Learning, offers only academic material and does not permit material to circulate.

The Califa Group Alternative

Larue’s former employer, Douglas County, is one of the systems using what he calls “the DIY route” to hosting content. Others doing the same include the Queens (NY) Library, the Harris County (Texas) Public Library, and Califa.

Califa Group (califa.org) is a membership-owned service bureau for California libraries based in San Mateo. It provides e-books through its Enki e-book collection, a platform created in partnership with the Contra Costa County Library and launched in May 2013. By the end of 2014 it involved about 80 library systems and 200 publishers.

As its website says, Califa differs in two ways from most other e-book distributors. It buys direct, and it buys, rather than licenses, files. “We believe that this is mutually beneficial, saving libraries money and giving publishers access to a greater pool of profit that would otherwise go to the vendor,” says Heather Teysko, assistant director. “We add digital rights management [DRM] protection through Adobe Content Server software, and we loan one copy at a time.”

Noting that the consortium buys on a nonexclusive basis, Teysko says, “We’re just one more outlet for titles.”

Califa pays no more than retail price for a title, and it has received discounts of as much as 40 percent because it buys titles filling entire catalogs, both frontlist and backlist. It lends out one copy at a time. “We buy additional copies and keep a 4:1 holds ratio, just like with a physical book,” says Teysko.

As with e-book collections at other libraries, romance, mystery, and general fiction titles are the most popular. “But we also try to mimic what you actually see on library shelves,” Teysko reports, “so we have a lot of DIY, gardening, cooking, and general reference. Many libraries that have OverDrive and the other vendors that work with the Big 5 wind up spending so much of their budget on the bestselling titles that the other great content that would be featured in a library—the great literary fiction, gardening, and so on— gets overlooked.

“Many libraries are investing more in Enki on just those kinds of books,” she says. “This gives smaller publishers another outlet to reach libraries.”

To sell to libraries, whether through consortia such as Califa or direct or via distributors, Teysko emphasizes that publishers should avoid offering books that include gratuitous violence, hate speech, and racist material, and make sure their metadata is accurate and complete.

Underlining the importance of metadata, she explains that “all of us who are self-hosting or working with publishers directly want good metadata because we merge it into a MARC record (that’s the machine-readable record that goes into a library’s online catalog, described at www.loc.gov/marc/) so that patrons can discover e-books by searching in their catalog. So the better and more complete the MARC record is, the better it is for us, and the greater chance that the book will be discovered and read.”

Good metadata can also extend the life of a publication. A 2014 white paper from the National Information Standards Organization emphasizes. “Demand-Driven Acquisition of Monographs” (see niso.org/workrooms/dda?elq_ mid=&elq_cid=1163045) points out that demand- or patron-driven acquisition works well if libraries create procedures for keeping track of titles that are not purchased immediately upon publication but may be requested by patrons at some point in the future; if libraries have methods for finding such titles and if there are procedures for handling the same title in multiple formats. Obviously, these guidelines apply to evergreen consumer materials as well as academic publications.

Primary Pointers

To summarize, here are the basics on libraries and e-book sales for 2015:
If you want to sell digital editions to public libraries, recognize the realities of the marketplace and work, really work, within them.
Determine how you’re going to create awareness and demand for your e-book title in libraries. If you’re not publishing a print edition, and your author does not have a following, you face a huge challenge in getting reviews, even in social media.
Understand that the promotion e-book distributors offer is promotion on their websites to their existing contacts. You remain responsible for marketing to any larger universes.
Recognize that only a few genres are popular in digital formats, and that even fewer genres are acceptable in the library market. Erotica, for example, has sold well in e-formats for some small publishers, but many library distributors do not include erotica titles in their catalogs.

Evaluate whether your titles can be profitable if they are distributed to libraries. Maybe library distribution will generate so little revenue that it will be just a marketing expense.

Some distributors claim that having a book in a library collection will create visibility that stimulates readers to buy the titles. Data from a mid-2012 Pew Research report, “Libraries,
Patrons and E-books,” are cited as proof that e-book borrowers often buy e-books, but the report (libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/06/22/libraries-patrons-and-e-books/) says that 57 percent of people who borrow e-books prefer to use library copies rather than buy their own.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this finding is from a survey done about three years ago, when library collections of e-books were much more limited, and the same report showed that many e-book owners did not know their libraries had digital copies. This report also does not indicate at what price point consumers are willing to buy copies of books that are also available through the library.

Stick with formats for Kindles and tablets.

Linda CarlsonLinda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independentfrom Seattle, where she is marketing a book that does not have a digital edition, Advertising with Small Budgets for Big

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