Libraries and Buy It Now: A Difficult Decision?

November 5, 2014

When Simon & Schuster (S&S) announced in June that it was extending to the entire US a pilot project originally started with the New York City Public Libraries, it became the last of the Big Five publishers to license its ebooks for loan by libraries. The American Library Association applauded the announcement in a press release, as it has applauded all such announcements. In fact, the S&S announcement completed the cycle of Big Five publishers…a victory for libraries and ALA’s efforts to convince publishers to offer their titles for library lending.

But there is a catch that has generated some heat. This is the requirement that libraries licensing S&S titles also offer them for sale to borrowers through a prominently displayed Buy It Now (BIN) button. For many public libraries, the requirement to offer ebooks for sale in order to license them puts the long-held belief that all services should be free to the end user without commercial inducements at odds with another long-held principle—that readers should have access to all published material in the format of their choice.

And the reality is even harder to swallow since the vendors (OverDrive, Baker & Taylor, and 3M) are not immediately able to segregate S&S content from that of other publishers. This means that the BIN button required by S&S is also displayed for all other ebooks licensed by the library. What starts as an S&S requirement currently applies to all content.

Recent discussions with Massachusetts librarians reveal just how difficult it is to balance the intention to provide access to the broadest content with the principle of the public library as a neutral, noncommercial provider of information. Most Massachusetts public libraries provide ebook access through membership in an automated resource-sharing network with OverDrive as the vendor, so the decision about S&S and BIN happens in a consortial context. The debate within some of these consortia has been intense.

The networks that have recently grappled with the decision to license S&S ebooks with the BIN button have decided to do so to meet user demand for S&S titles, but are clearly not happy with the BIN requirement. Some see this as commerce infringing on the library mission. Another said the members “held their noses” when voting to permit the BIN button and felt coerced to make the decision. In another network they voted for it reluctantly, feeling like they were pushing their patrons to buy. The Minuteman Network wrote to Simon & Schuster and to ALA about the BIN requirement concluding, “As practicing librarians we are now being given the choice of denying our patrons the content that they want or becoming shills for commercial enterprises. It is a sad day for us all.”

Yet three of the networks, including the Boston Public Library, have offered the BIN option for several years and report that there is little actual sales activity and no negative feedback from patrons. 

One wonders why the BIN button is so important to Simon & Schuster, given the prevailing sense that it is not used often by library patrons and thus produces very limited sales for the publisher. Perhaps the experience in the New York pilot program was very different, with S&S seeing libraries as a viable sales channel. In the end, forcing libraries to compromise on principle in order to offer their users S&S ebooks doesn’t look like a sound business decision. Libraries should be free to choose to offer the Buy It Now option or not, based on their understanding of the benefits and risks of doing so.

So the reality for now seems to be that the BIN button requirement is another compromise we are making in order to meet the insatiable demand of our customers for ebooks. It is still early days for ebooks in libraries, and we are challenged to be flexible in working with our partners—publishers and vendors—to offer the best possible user experience to our patrons. Ultimately, so long as we continue to place the user at the center of our decision-making, we will not stray from our mission.

With no apparent pushback from library users on the BIN button, it is clear for now that licensing S&S ebooks is what our users would want us to do. The impact so far is minimal and the benefits are worth it. But we also need to be clear, as Minuteman has, that requiring libraries to become a sales channel is not what we look for from a partner in the ebook ecosystem.

ROBERT C. MAIER is a member of the ALA Digital Content Working Group.