E-Book Blues

March 4, 2011

Over the past eight days, the biblioblogosphere erupted as word spread that terms of service were about to shift for libraries’ e-book lending rights.

It began with a February 24 email (PDF file) from OverDrive CEO Steve Potash alerting customers that “Publishers are expressing concern and debating their digital future where a single eBook license to a library may never expire, never wear out, and never need replacement” and that one firm (which turned out to be HarperCollins) had decided to solve the problem it perceived by establishing “a checkout limit for each eBook licensed.” The magic number turned out to be 26, a checkout ceiling that HarperCollins President of Sales Josh Marwell defended March 1 in an open letter. Marwell’s argument was, let’s just say, poorly received by the library community, as documented by (at last count) 100 mostly negative comments, and OverDrive responded March 1 by removing HarperCollins titles from its Library Marketplace catalog, effective March 7.

Curiously, in all the back and forth, few are acknowledging the documented impact libraries have on publishers’ and booksellers’ bottom lines, no matter the format. In a 2007 survey, Harris Interactive found that, out of a sampling of several thousand randomly selected households, “two in five adults and 36% of youth have purchased a book (hard cover or soft cover) after checking it out from the local library.” What’s more, about one in five library patrons purchased a CD after having borrowed it and approximately 25% did the same with DVDs. The Harris survey tallied the per-person purchasing patterns  as averaging eight books, eight CDs, and 13 DVDs over a year’s time, concluding:

Overall, this data shows the power of the library to influence purchase decisions, not just in general, but among key demographics to marketers such as those 18–34 and parents. Publishers, working in conjunction with the libraries can see the power of their product multiply. Once a book, CD or DVD is returned to the library, that doesn’t mean the relationship is over. In fact, for about half of those who have been to the library in the past year—both adults and youth—a purchase has been made.

So, honestly, why should it matter that a “single eBook license to a library may never expire, never wear out, and never need replacement”? Most printed books last for years in library collections and that didn’t affect book sales when the economy was a bit more flush; those loanable titles just whetted the public’s appetite to borrow and buy more. Why should that pattern change for e-books? If anything, there may well be more incentive, since a borrowed e-book vanishes from a patron’s e-reader device when the loan period ends even if the borrower wants to retain the copy for a few more days to finish it.

We know from the flurry of online commentary how a number of library practitioners feel about HarperCollins’s policy change. But where does the American Library Association stand in all this? President Roberta Stevens released a statement to ALA members and on her Facebook Notes page March 3:

Recent developments in the e-book marketplace have underscored the importance of a model for e-book purchasing and lending that reflects the interests of all of the stakeholders: authors, publishers, booksellers, libraries and, ultimately, the public.

At the recent Midwinter Meeting, my president’s report identified the names of the members of the Equitable Access to Electronic Content task force, which was created in response to a Council resolution. The task force, chaired by Linda Crowe and Michael Porter, will be meeting in Washington next week for a working retreat that is being financially supported by ALA. Among other groups, they will get assistance from OITP’s E-Book subcommittee.

I do not take your concerns about changes in the e-book pricing approach lightly. However, due to the far-reaching and long-term effects, the task force deserves time to gather information and examine the complex issues involved in equitable access to electronic content, including e-books. We will receive their report at the Annual Conference and I look forward to our using it, as an association, to formulate actions that will ensure we have 21st century libraries to meet the needs of our users.

Meanwhile, please feel free to continue communicating your viewpoints to publishers and e-book distributors.

Thank you for speaking up.

While we await the results of the March 7–8 retreat, there’s a burgeoning reading list that ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and Washington Office have compiled at their joint Emerging Issues website.