Ebook Discovery

The library/publisher “sweet spot”

June 16, 2014

Libraries and publishers are in the business of connecting readers and authors. Bestsellers make up the majority of traffic in public libraries, but how can libraries, publishers, and others in the ecosystem team up to help readers discover the best fit for their tastes?

This is the brass ring that supports a diversity of thought and reading experiences, creates markets for more authors to survive and thrive in their profession, and elicits the joy of finding a new title for a reader. It is also a clear way for librarians to further demonstrate their professional value in a world of information abundance. Ebook discovery through libraries was the theme of an American Library Association–sponsored workshop at Digital Book World (DBW) in New York City in January 2014. I joined a talented team of presenters—including Nora Rawlinson from EarlyWord, publishing consultant Maja Thomas, and Wendy Bartlett from Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library (CCPL). We had two goals: increase awareness of how libraries support discovery and brainstorm new opportunities to enable discovery through libraries. It was a broad-ranging conversation about the physical and digital assets libraries can mobilize, and we flagged several issues for further consideration and development. Because the DBW session was geared to a nonlibrary audience, the following summary supplies arguments that librarians can use to demonstrate their value in the 21st-century reading ecosystem. It will also serve as a jumping-off point for exploring how libraries can enhance their resources and foster new partnerships.

Physical assets

Many libraries begin developing young patrons’ reading habits early with lap-sit and storytime programming. Summer reading programs and promotions like Teen Read Week encourage reading for pleasure, while adult literacy efforts ensure that millions of people will become confident readers. Creating a love of reading is vital, particularly as almost one in five people recently reported not reading a single book in the past year, according to the Pew Research Center. Literacy is one factor, but gaming, social media, and streaming video increasingly compete for people’s time and interest. On average, library users read 20 books in a year, compared with 13 books for nonusers.

Libraries are often characterized as physical places that offer information access, but in a deeper sense they encourage information discovery. Our 16,400+ public library buildings, for instance, are “discovery centers” that remain indispensable as many brick-and-mortar bookstores close. The Codex Group, for example, has found that while book purchases are frequently made online, most of these buyers discover the titles elsewhere. Maja Thomas emphasized this message during the DBW panel, pointing out how library displays and programming promote books—including publishers’ backlists—and help build the fan base for genres and authors even more successfully than online retailers.

A physical space in the digital age serves as a hub where people can connect with physical collections, librarians, and their neighbors. Public libraries host more than

3.75 million programs in a year, attracting nearly 87 million people. Library programming supports cultural and civic engagement and exposes people to print materials and digital media on such themes as Women’s History Month and the anniversary of the March on Washington. Library spaces also give patrons opportunities to use technology and build digital literacy skills. Technological innovations are continually emerging, and libraries play a role in extending their reach beyond early adopters.

Digital displays promoting new e-titles, QR codes linking to book reviews, or public events connecting readers with one another and authors (in person or by videoconference)—all of these physical and virtual resources make libraries a third

space of discovery beyond home and the workplace.

Digital/virtual assets

Library “virtual branches” are an increasingly vital complement for people to connect with information and resources whenever they find it most convenient—including when the physical building is closed. New York Public Library, for instance, now draws 22 million web visits in a year, the second highest of any city agency. This continues to grow as libraries expand their reach with social media and seek greater integration across platforms to improve usability. Library websites are the most common transaction point for circulating digital materials. In 2013, six libraries exceeded 1 million digital checkouts through OverDrive. CCPL has seen its digital circulation grow from 35,000 to 806,000 in three years’ time.

Wendy Bartlett and Nora Rawlinson shared some examples of libraries that are actively expanding their digital services.

  • Libraries are partnering with distributors to improve ebook browsing, checkout, and reading on a range of devices all within a library catalog entry, rather than force a patron to visit a vendor site. CCPL patrons can now read book samples right out of the catalog, which could account for a 25% increase in circulation in January 2014 over the previous year. Baltimore County (Md.) Public Library also reports an increase in circulation as a result of its catalog integration work with 3M.

New “discovery layers” break down silos and feature the kind of displays that grab users’ attention. Rawlinson contrasted the Chicago Public Library website before and after implementing the BiblioCommons discovery system to show how the library is better equipped to feature new or award-winning titles and staff picks.

The user experience is also the focus of ReadersFirst, which in January 2014 released its Guide to Library E-Book Vendors, rating how well each vendor makes the ebook experience seamless for readers and responds to library needs through software enhancements.

Noted as still missing from the library mix are the ability to integrate and offer easy access to book trailers and other online extras like reading guides or coloring-book pages for young readers.

  • Another example of a digital analogue is a portal that serves as an online “reading room” for kids and teens. This online space leads them directly to youth titles, bypassing adult titles and their covers. These materials are still included in the main digital library for anyone to browse for ebooks across the collection.
  • Library content must be easily accessible via mobile websites and apps. Geared for smartphones and tablets, mobile-ready access points have helped improve the process of downloading digital content. Library app collections become a fast channel for promoting titles and other library resources and services.

Two library services recently recognized as cutting edge translate the physical browsing experience into the virtual realm: the Orange County (Fla.) Library

System’s (OCLS) Shake It! mobile app and Scottsdale (Ariz.) Public Library’s Gimme! mobile website and search engine. With each shake of their device, OCLS readers get recommendations from across the catalog, check availability, and place a hold on or download chosen materials. Gimme! asks readers to select from a menu that includes “gimme a clue” or “gimme liberty or gimme death” to retrieve staff-selected titles that range from The Face on the Milk Carton and self-published ebooks to Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly.

  • Social media technology is a growing part of the mix, with Pinterest and Facebook playing major roles in promotion and community engagement. CCPL, for instance, hosts a weekly “Night Owls” session with a librarian “talking books” with readers. Harris County (Tex.) Public Library encourages discovery through its “Book of the Day” feature on its Pinterest account, as well as compiling and sharing staff picks.

Librarian expertise

Library staff members are at the intersection of the physical and the virtual. Recent research from the Pew Research Center found that people see librarian assistance as a top library resource. In addition, the DBW audience clearly valued the expertise and reach of thousands of librarians who work in public, school, and academic libraries.

Librarian readers’ advisory both uses and goes beyond digital algorithms to ensure that the right title finds the right reader at the right time. Cuyahoga County, for instance, offers two customized, online readers’ advisory options: 3 for 3 and

Read Intuit. In 3 for 3, readers share the last three books they read and liked, and librarians suggest three more. Read Intuit digs more deeply into reader profiles with questionnaires tailored to adult, young adult, and kids’ titles. Customized lists of titles are then emailed to readers and placed in the “my lists” section of their online library accounts.

Both Bartlett and Rawlinson talked about using digital advanced reading copies (ARCs) from services like Edelweiss or NetGalley as a discovery tool for librarians. Combined with advance reviews from publications like Booklist, ARCs allow librarians to test-drive, order, and promote new titles before they are published. These services also help drive traffic and conversations on Rawlinson’s EarlyWord website; the recently launched LibraryReads website corrals readers’ advisory library picks.

Book awards that range from Caldecott to Printz to Carnegie recognize and expose high-quality writing to readers of all ages. ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Teen Book Finder app increases the visibility of these award-winning titles.

On the horizon


The publishing and lending ecosystems continue to blur lines and roles. More authors are self-publishing. Libraries are building their own digital content distribution platforms and even taking on some local publishing roles. Amazon lends ebooks to its premium subscribers, and we can imagine other players will introduce similar options to their product mix. While Simon & Schuster is the only publisher currently requiring that a purchase option be included with library lending, “buy-it-now” options for patrons, as well as other commercial partnerships, could provide some compensation or credit for libraries that connect authors and readers. Partnership opportunities—with indie bookstores and digital start-ups—likely will abound for the nimble library. At the same time, serial subscriptions and mobile reading apps will again challenge how we acquire, expose, manage, and build our collections.

Data and privacy

Customization and location-aware recommendations are increasing popular services that demand personal data. How will libraries both protect and leverage patron data that we manage or that may be in the hands of third-party distributors?

Some libraries are beginning to allow patrons to opt into personalized offers and recommendations by turning “on” their circulation history to library staff.

Other data-related questions that arose in the DBW session included analyzing turnover rates more closely, gaining a better understanding of how long a patron will wait for a title and whether a patron will return to the library collection after an extended wait, and finding out how readers engage with books—something that circulation stats alone can’t tell us. What data can help us better serve our readers or make us more valuable to commercial vendors, and what is the trade-off? These questions swirl around Big Data usage in general.


One theme from the DBW session could be seen as a complement—or a challenge—to librarian expertise. Bartlett and Thomas talked about the value of patron-driven acquisition. Readers can bring titles to the librarian’s attention that might otherwise have been missed—the classic benefit of crowdsourcing. “This is an example of the way the world has dramatically changed: Instead of top-down decisions, user desire can bubble up and influence purchases,” Thomas noted.

Crowdsourcing can also be a driver for discovery. Users often want to share their passion for a book by developing their own book trailers for the library website or inserting reviews or user tags into library catalogs. Suggestions from DBW included encouraging patrons to develop and share their lists of favorite books, asking them to describe two emotions they felt on reading a specific title and share this somehow with other readers, or examining the reading lists of other community members for ideas on acquisition and programming.


The DBW session ended on an optimistic note for opening a new front for discussion among librarians, publishers, and others around ebook discovery. Rawlinson and Thomas noted that publishers and librarians live in separate worlds, often driven by conflicting forces. Could further conversations about improving discovery build productive new bridges? Promoting discovery appears to be a rich vein for librarians to mine as we hone our expertise and publicize our value in the 21st century.

We’d love to hear from you: How is your library promoting discovery of digital content? Email the ALA Digital Content and Libraries Working Group at dcwg_input@ala.org.

LARRA CLARK is director of the Program on Networks and Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century at ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy.


School Library Ebook Business Models

Creating licensing partnerships that work