Great to See Major Publishers Embrace Alternative Ebook Models in Public Libraries, But Let’s Give Credit Where Credit is Due

From No Shelf Required:

This month, libraries across North America that work with hoopla digital will be able to provide access to some 15,000 (backlist) titles by HarperCollins, one of the ‘big five’ publishers that have resisted working with non-traditional ebook business models and adhered to the one-copy-one-user approach, resulting in less-than-ideal user experience for public library patrons. The news came the day before the official launch of the American Library Association conference in late June and has already received ample coverage, much of which has revolved around statements that with this move HarperCollins was changing the game, breaking new ground, and giving libraries something exciting to look forward to.

While HarperCollins deserves credit for being the first of the Big Five (others include Penguin Random, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster) to go a step beyond the restrictive one copy-one user model (it was also the first to provide ebooks to libraries when others weren’t ready), HarperCollins isn’t the first publisher to embrace alternative models and certainly isn’t the one that is breaking new ground with this move. In fact, as many already know, hoopla has offered the cost-per-circulation model (which pays publishers per ‘loan’ instead of paying fixed fees to acquire titles) for a few years.

. . . .

I’ve had the privilege of working with vendors that cater to all types of libraries and have seen first-hand how difficult it is to crack the public library market in particular. My experience has shown that the vast majority of libraries are simply not ready or are not willing to work with new (unfamiliar) companies providing high-quality services (and models that are actually revolutionizing access to books) if, and particularly if  a) they are not established and don’t have a proven record in the library field; b) they are not based in North America (not always the case but very often) and c) they do not work with the Big Five (because public library patrons want those bestsellers the most, an argument that certainly carries weight).

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required and thanks to Paul for the tip.

5 thoughts on “Great to See Major Publishers Embrace Alternative Ebook Models in Public Libraries, But Let’s Give Credit Where Credit is Due”

  1. Embrace – or wish they could extinguish?

    The only thing trad-pub likes about library ebooks is that they can make more off them than they do when someone donates a book to the library (where they make nothing.)

    • The big publishers LOVE ebooks because their contracts with the authors allows them to keep most of the profit with limited expense. Ebooks are the black of their bottom lines, and even major authors are making far less money than when paper was the primary source of royalties.

  2. Giving a blank check to the library patrons for books is a financial disaster in the making for libraries. If a huge number of patrons all want the next bestseller the minute the library ebook system gets it, that’s a huge chunk of change gone out of the library budget. Some of that money could have been spent on books other than the latest Stephen King novel.

    My feeling about my library’s ebooks is that I am paying waiting time as well as taxes for that book, and that’s fair. If I want that book instantly, I buy it myself.

  3. I hope a middle ground on digital books for libraries can be found. I don’t know about other public libraries, but our digital circulation has been growing steadily for as least the last five years. Paper circulation is up this year also, but it has been in decline most of the time. Digital is still less than a quarter of total circulation, but it is rising steadily.

    I used to hope that digital books would save libraries because the staff time required to process digital books is much lower than paper, and physical handling costs are nil, but licenses for digital books are very expensive and seem to be increasing library costs rather than decreasing them.

    In theory, digital books could be an effective way to manage circulation of books like the latest Stephen King. Librarians seem to be good at predicting how many times we will lend a given title, but picking the optimum number of copies to maximize reader satisfaction and minimize costs is hard. Order too few copies and the hold queues are too long, order too many and you end up with multiple copies of the book in reasonable condition after the initial surge is over. Those copies have to be taken off the shelves to make room for new books. You can’t have shelves and shelves of duplicate copies of last years’ favorites.

    These are sunk costs– we can get some back by routing them to library used book sales, but that channel has its limits and we end up selling good books by the pound to the bottom feeders.

    A digital book can be read simultaneously by an unlimited number of readers, so if we think End of Watch will lend 100 times, buy a 100 lends, buy more when you run out. Easy.

    However, current digital licensing practice is only to license sequential reads. That is, we can buy a license for 50 two-week lends, but the lends have to be spread over 100 weeks because only one reader at a time is allowed. If fifty people want to check the book out in the first week of availability, someone will have to wait almost two years (100 weeks) for their chance. If we want to cut the wait to max of 2 months, we would have to buy 25 licenses, and pay for a whopping 1250 lends in order to satisfy 50 people in two months.

    Good folk who return a book in a few days instead of 2 weeks mitigate this, but how easy is it to return a book early on OverDrive? Some of those 1200 lends will be used in the following months, but as the demand rate goes down, those extra licenses become much less necessary to keep hold queues down. You can see how digital books get expensive, and why the hold queues are long. And publishers are not cutting any breaks for libraries– digital licenses tend to be much more expensive than buying a paper book that will last for an equivalent number of lends.

    We tried Hoopla and had to shut it down because costs were too hard to manage, as the OP describes. Hoopla charges by the lend, not the license, but we had no way effective way to manage the rate that media, including books, were lent. I found this quite frustrating because their model looked like an improvement, but was not workable. And it gave a boost to the digital Luddites. Not only that, our patrons passed over Hoopla’s books and checked out their music and video, I think because their book selection was not of great interest to our readers and would not download to our readers’ device of choice, Kindle.

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