From Ars Technica:
Before Sarah Adler moved to Maryland last week, she used library cards from her Washington, DC, home and neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland to read books online. The Libby app, a slick and easy-to-use service from the company OverDrive, gave her access to millions of titles. When she moved, she picked up another card, and access to another library’s e-collection, as well as a larger consortium that the library belongs to. She does almost all of her reading on her phone, through the app, catching a page or two between working on her novels and caring for her 2-year-old. With her husband also at home, she’s been reading more books, mostly historical romance and literature, during the pandemic. In 2020, she estimates, she has read 150 books.
Adler buys books “rarely,” she says, “which I feel bad about. As someone who hopes to be published one day, I feel bad not giving money to authors.”
Borrowers like Adler are driving publishers crazy. After the pandemic closed many libraries’ physical branches this spring, checkouts of ebooks are up 52 percent from the same period last year, according to OverDrive, which partners with 50,000 libraries worldwide. Hoopla, another service that connects libraries to publishers, says 439 library systems in the US and Canada have joined since March, boosting its membership by 20 percent.
Some public libraries, new to digital collections, delight in exposing their readers to a new kind of reading. The library in Archer City, Texas, population 9,000, received a grant to join OverDrive this summer. The new ebook collection “has really been wonderful,” says library director Gretchen Abernathy-Kuck. “So much of the last few months has been stressful and negative.” The ebooks are “something positive. It was something new.”
. . . .
But the surging popularity of library ebooks also has heightened longstanding tensions between publishers, who fear that digital borrowing eats into their sales, and public librarians, who are trying to serve their communities during a once-in-a-generation crisis. Since 2011, the industry’s big-five publishers—Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan—have limited library lending of ebooks, either by time—two years, for example—or number of checkouts—most often, 26 or 52 times. Readers can browse, download, join waiting lists for, and return digital library books from the comfort of their home, and the books are automatically removed from their devices at the end of the lending period.
The result: Libraries typically pay between $20 and $65 per copy—an industry average of $40, according to one recent survey—compared with the $15 an individual might pay to buy the same ebook online. Instead of owning an ebook copy forever, librarians must decide at the end of the licensing term whether to renew.
. . . .
Last year, Macmillan took an additional step, limiting each library system to only a single digital copy of a new title—at half its usual price—until it had been on the market for two months. Macmillan CEO John Sargent said he worried there was too little friction in library ebook lending. “To borrow a book in [the pre-digital days] days required transportation, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forgot to get them back on time,” he wrote in a letter announcing the policy. “In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market.” Many librarians, arguing the Macmillan policy hurt large urban systems that already struggle to keep up with demand for new and noteworthy books, organized to boycott the publisher.
. . . .
The House Antitrust Subcommittee last year launched an investigation of competition in the digital marketplace, and subcommittee chair Representative David Cicilline (D–Rhode Island) has met with library advocates. “The whole issue of this negotiation [between libraries and publishers] over the last decade derives from a place where libraries have almost no rights in the digital age,” says Alan Inouye, the senior director of public policy and government relations at the American Library Association. “In the longer run, there needs to be a change in the environment or in the game. That means legislation or regulation.”
Link to the rest at Ars Technica
PG thought the question of whether libraries were good or bad for publishers had been resolved a long time ago.
The resolution goes something like this:
- Libraries allow people to read books at no cost.
- A meaningful portion of people who read books they check out from libraries will find they enjoy reading and will continue to read books on a regular basis.
- Once a person becomes an avid reader, they are quite likely to continue this habit for a long time.
- Some avid readers will become wealthy enough so they’ll just buy a copy of a book they think they will like rather than wait until the library has a copy available to loan.
- Some avid readers will always be willing to wait to read a book they think they will really like until it becomes available at their library.
- Some avid readers won’t want to wait for several weeks until a book is available at the library and will decide to buy it instead, even if they’re not particularly wealthy.
- Avid readers are among the most effective advocates for books and authors they like. Unlike advertising and promotion activities, avid readers don’t cost publishers a cent.
- At least some avid readers will flock together in what are called book clubs.
- When a book club decides to read a book, it is likely that all copies available at the local library that aren’t already checked out will quickly disappear from the library shelves.
- Avid readers in book clubs, avid readers who are friends of other avid readers, etc., etc., tend to buy many more books than people who never caught the reading bug at no cost via their local library.
Ergo, libraries promote more reading, which creates more readers, which creates more book purchasers, which means publishers make more money.
People borrowing books from libraries in any form are likely the best way that publishers can ensure the creation of more and more long-term customers.
But acting on that understanding would require long-term thinking on the part of traditional publishers.
Among many other things that traditional publishers are not good at doing, engaging in long-term thinking may be the most damaging. In the long run.