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The Truth About E-books in Libraries

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As the director of the Douglas County, CO, Libraries, I spend a lot of time thinking about how libraries and publishers relate to each other, and about what might improve our interaction in the digital era.

To start with, I think we librarians need to provide publishers with information like the following:

Public libraries in America today buy about 10 percent of the total commercial publishing output; and closer to 40 percent of children’s materials.

Which books? The answer has four parts. We buy:

● What our patrons ask for. Libraries aren’t “free”—they’re paid for by the community. That’s who we have to satisfy.

● What’s pushed by advertising. Whether library buyers are professional staff members at individual libraries or centralized collection profilers, they try to anticipate demand. Public demand often results from advertising. Print runs and publishers’ marketing budgets are generally reliable predictors of the number of copies we’ll need.

● What’s reviewed. We tend to buy what’s well reviewed in media we trust unless demand trumps a review. Books that wind up in libraries are typically featured in such periodicals as Booklist, Library JournalSchool Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.

● What distributors carry. It’s so much easier to deal with one intermediary who can wrap up reviews, ordering, discounts, and delivery. It’s easier to write one check for six publishers than to write six. As a result, relationships between libraries and publishers have weakened over the past 20 years. Instead of talking with publishers, we talk with our distributors, and we tend to buy heavily from the Big Six (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster).

Combined with recent challenges to library budgets (which tend to lag behind the general economy in both reduction and recovery), that means it’s been difficult for independent, small, and self-published works to get into our collections. We don’t know nearly as much about them; our patrons rarely ask for them, and it takes more work to deal with them.

E-book Elements

E-books bring added challenges, of course, but they also bring opportunities for cooperation between librarians and smaller publishers.

Following the appearance and consumer adoption of the Kindle, the Sony e-book Reader, the iPad, the NOOK, and the smartphone, suddenly our patrons began asking us for all the usual books in digital editions.

Librarians have dealt with new formats before (filmstrips to reel-to-reel to audiotapes to CD to MP3 to DVD, etc.). But the e-book broke our distribution model and changed fundamental business terms.

In the beginning, we had NetLibrary as a source for e-book titles, but it was set up just for reading online, not for downloading to devices, so for most libraries OverDrive, founded in 2002, became the only game in town.

We couldn’t buy books from OverDrive, though. We could only lease access to them. If we left OverDrive, we left behind the collections we had “purchased.” And we had to pay what OverDrive charged—slightly more than the consumer price. We sacrificed discounts (generally 40 to 45 percent off list price). And because OverDrive provided a hosted solution—so convenient!—we also sacrificed any control over the user experience.

This was clearly part of a wider pattern. Take a look at your Kindle or NOOK license. You don’t own those books either. I remember inheriting a lot of books from my grandfather, books that had a profound effect on my development. But in the e-frontier, when you die, your books die with you.

Then it got worse: publishers started changing the game on us. HarperCollins, worried that library loans would hurt sales of new e-titles, charged us again for a book (through OverDrive) after 26 reads. Random House, with no advance notice at all, tripled its prices for new e-books, so that the latest Danielle Steel, for example, cost $84 as an e-book—hard to justify when you can buy four or five hard copies. And some publishers started talking about the importance of “friction”—making it just awkward or difficult enough to borrow an e-book from a library so that it would be less hassle to buy it outright. In effect, this urged us to base our e-book business model on customer inconvenience.

The remaining four of the Big Six wouldn’t sell e-books to us at any price. The largest distributor of e-books, Amazon, used its own proprietary file format that only it could control. Longtime distributor Baker and Taylor announced its own locked-down e-reader file format, thereby claiming our e-collections as their business asset, not ours.

Myths That Might Get in Your Way

Meanwhile, though, there was an explosion in new writing. Independent publishers and self-publishers found the economic barriers to distribution disappearing. By the end of 2010, there were 2.7 million self-published titles—more than nine times the mainstream commercial output. Since the job of librarians is to provide access to the intellectual content of our culture, it was suddenly obvious: the Big Six were not the most interesting kids on the block anymore.

But self-publishing authors and independent publishers (as well as people working within the giant houses) have a lot of misinformation about e-books in libraries. This seems a good time to bust the myths.

Myth #1: Libraries just want to buy one copy, then give your book away to the world. The truth: No, we don’t. We do want to increase access—getting more books in more people’s hands is part of the library’s mission. But we understand and adhere to copyright. We pay for multiple copies in the e-book world, just as we do with print. At Douglas County Libraries, we have our own system for managing e-book checkouts (see “the DCL model” below). We apply industry standard Digital Rights Management through the industry standard Adobe Content Server, and we check out books to just one person at a time.

Myth #2. Libraries steal sales from publishers. The truth: No, we don’t. Last year, my community of 300,000 people checked out more than 8.2 million e-titles. Those people would never have bought that many. At the same time, Douglas County residents bought a lot of books. We have a lot of “power patrons” (defined as people who use the library at least once a week).

Research conducted by Bowker and Library Journal found that “for every two books they borrow, power patrons buy one. And, maybe most surprising, nearly two thirds of power patrons buy books that they had previously borrowed at the library.” That study (digitalbookworld.com/2012/library-patrons-buy-books-they-borrow-study-says) was based on 2,000 library patrons. Our own study of almost 4,000 Douglas County patrons found much the same thing: The more people use the library, the more books they buy. We don’t steal sales; we boost them.

Myth #3. It’s too easy to borrow books from the library. The truth: I wish. There isn’t a public library in the nation that can buy enough copies to satisfy public demand. Most popular titles have waiting lists. It’s not uncommon for people to wait at least 12 weeks for bestsellers, or a even up to a year

Library/Publisher Partnerships

Although we can’t offer instant gratification to all our patrons, we can form new partnerships with publishers that make it easier for patrons to read and buy books in all formats.

At the end of 2010, I asked my IT director, Monique Sendze, if we could accept a donation of an e-book. I wasn’t talking about snatching something off someone’s Kindle; I wanted to know if we could receive, catalog, and deliver a book written by a local author and freely given to us for public use.

The answer was no.

But today, after a lot of study, experimentation, and investment in programming time, the Douglas County Libraries can accept such books. Moreover, we can and do buy them. At this writing, we have more than 7,000 e-book titles in our catalog from more than 800 publishers.

Our relationships with publishers are much the same for e-books as for print-on-paper books. Namely:

● We own the copies we buy.

● We buy at a discount set by the publisher.

● We integrate content—and the accompanying metadata or cataloging descriptions—into our catalogs. Books, e-books, audiobooks, movies, music (and cover art and reviews)—it’s all together.

So far, that’s what we’ve always done. What’s new about our e-book offerings?

● We attach DRM to e-book files, except for public domain or Creative Commons content.

● We have a built-in recommendation engine, offering suggestions for further reads based on popularity, reader ranking, and even one’s own borrowing history (on an opt-in basis).

● We post a link to purchase if the publisher provides one. Our patrons can check out what’s available, put a hold on what isn’t, or buy a book outright, with the library getting a percentage of the sale.

In the past month, our patrons clicked the “Buy it now!” button 5,000 times. How many of those clicks resulted in sales? We’re not sure yet—once patrons leave our site, we rely on the reporting of our partners. But we’re confident that we are adding value for both patrons and publishers.

Our e-book agreements are governed by a clear, simple “Dear publishing partner” letter, and a companion “common understanding” document. And our software model is designed for replicability, with significant Open Source components. You can find the letter, the “common understanding” document, and more information about the technical side of the DCL model at the eVoke site established by the Colorado State Library—evoke.cvlsites.org.

The interest in this model—which restores purchasing power to the public library and predictability to the publisher—has been extraordinary, both regionally and internationally.

What’s Next?

In times of great change, success goes to those bold enough to define a vision of the future where they can thrive together.

That’s why we’re keeping track of the publishers who have expressed a willingness to work with us. It’s why we’re sharing our list with the many libraries investigating our model, and why those libraries are sharing their lists with us. And it’s also why we’re working on new partnership opportunities, which I invite you to explore.

The director of the Douglas County Libraries, James LaRue reports that he is interested in hearing from publishers who have, or are developing, a significant inventory of e-books, and that he’s especially interested in genre fiction at this point. To contact him, email jlarue@dclibraries.org.

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