A New Year’s Vision of Libraries as Bookstores

January 6, 2014

Beth Bacon, vice president of content management at Seattle publishing platform Booktrope, posted a piece December 30, 2013, on the idea of libraries as ebookstores. On the surface, there is much to commend it. Many bookstores have closed, and the more than 15,000 public libraries in the United States—more, ALA tells us (PDF file), than there are McDonald's in the country—would seem to provide a nationwide network of distribution, already established, already trusted.

Libraries have something a number of bookstores do not: incredibly dedicated and passionate readers who love to talk about books. Potentially, that’s an impressive sales force.

All libraries have to do is place a big button on their websites that offers to sell the patron, on the spot, pretty much all the ebooks available from the other e-tailers. Bilbary, for example, can do that right now. The price is competitive—far better, in fact, than what a library typically pays through other sales channels. And Bilbary’s pitch is certainly a good one for libraries: The library gets half the revenue from the sale. All the money, it could be said, goes into buying even more library content.

There are a few limits. Bilbary will sell only open-standard ePubs, not Amazon’s proprietary MOBI format. But that’s a smart idea anyhow; surely consumers prefer to have a more portable file when their old Kindles die and they consider moving to an Android or iOS tablet. 

So why not?

I believe there are four obstacles:

  1. Some librarians resist the overt commercialization of their services. They don’t want to compete with local businesses (even though bookstores are disappearing). Even if their governing authorities would permit such sales, librarians worry that their budgets will shrink as sales rise, which would replace the promotion of literacy with the profit motive.
  2. Publishers aren’t helping. They put millions of dollars into advertising, but it has apparently never occurred to them to offer promotional packages to libraries. They pay bookstores to put up displays and exhibits in prime retail locations within their store. But not one publisher has offered a library an inviting electronic kiosk, prepopulated with the publisher’s latest bestsellers and optimized for immediate purchase.
  3. There’s something self-destructive about selling books direct to consumers at prices better than we get ourselves. It smacks of unfairness. Maybe if the library got to buy copies at the same price as consumers, or buy one at the consumer price for every two we sell, then things would make more sense.
  4. It’s really hard to change established human behavior. Except for the purchase of used print books, people simply don’t think of going to the library to buy something. They buy an iPad, and establish a pattern of purchasing their ebooks from iTunes or Amazon. Even if they’re used to the OverDrive app, they don’t buy the book from OverDrive. 

It would take a significant splash to insinuate the idea of library as not only a partner in cooperative purchasing agreements for shared content but as a convenient venue to buy outright the book you just borrowed. We might have more luck if we teamed up with the hardware folks: Try out devices, buy the one you like most at the library (in partnership with say, Best Buy), and get inducted into a whole new ecosystem. Or, we could team up more directly with authors. Ultimately, their wishes may be more powerful than publisher preferences.

But I’m curious. What do you see as the potential benefits and risks to your library?

JAMIE LARUE is former director of the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries. He is author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges.