With ALA approaching, how will libraries compete in the ebook market?

A recent PW article outlined a recent breakfast meeting between librarians and publishers at Random House, where speakers discussed the next step for libraries now that all major trade publishers have begun “participating in the library e-book market.”

Yet librarians know they need to do more to make their services competitive, whether with subscription services like Oyster, regular retailers like Amazon and B&N, self-publishing, and even pirating. At the upcoming ALA meeting, they will discuss whether the solution falls with a better user interface or with improved publisher cooperation.

The above PW article summarizes best the positions of the parties involved, but for those who don’t want to tear themselves away, here’s a quick summary:

  • Many librarians say that the largest demands of patrons is for recent frontlist titles, and publishers have notoriously put limits on the number of times books can be lent or the number allowed to be checked out at once without paying for another e-copy; thus, they want publishers to provide better terms for these books so that patrons don’t see the long wait for new books and decide to immediately go elsewhere. In other words, they want to improve on the current system.
  • Biblioboard founder Mitchell Davis argued that, “Instead of spending money on a limited number of frontlist e-book titles, generating long waits in hold queues and patron dissatisfaction, why not concentrate limited resources on building a better user experience, based on the library’s ‘long tail’ collections?” He feels that librarians should adopt a model for users that have gotten used to Netflix-style systems: one with “unlimited, multiuser access to backlist works” that would in turn lead to more frontlist sales of the latest sequels.

Libraries are one of the last guaranteed avenues for print book sales, and publishers know this, which is ostensibly why they have begun to engage more with libraries to sustain their success. But librarians can easily make the case that their support is too conservative, and that their partnership must expand for both sides to truly benefit. Libraries need to go digital in order to maintain its legitimacy and its funding, and eBook support from publishers is a vital cornerstone of the future of libraries. But opinions are divided on where that support should go.

In terms of the above arguments, I would first note that there is already a “Netflix for books” in Oyster,  a monthly subscription service that has partnerships with HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Perseus Books Group, Wiley, Chronicle, and others for a total of over 500,000 titles, according to PW. The service has attained the cooperation of publishers by promising them what they need most, and what most distributors like Amazon keep tightly secret: data. Oyster can tell publishers about the likes, dislikes, and reading habits of their consumers, including reading speed, when, where, and how often they read, and what type of device they prefer to read on.

Libraries can provide that same information. Or more specifically, the third party applications like Axis 360, Blio, and BiblioBoard that libraries rely on to distribute eBooks and audiobooks to their patrons. Major publishers will likely make more of their backlist titles freely available to libraries if they had assurances from these providers that user data would be made available to them, just as Oyster provides it. I am uncertain whether it would be publishers or librarians who would pay for this enhanced access, or if the digital providers would be willing to disclose the information at all.

But do library users go to public libraries for an Oyster experience, or for recent titles? Jeff Jankowski, VP of Midwest Tape, argued at the BEA that libraries can only provide better services if they discard the outdated “’video store’ model of one user, one copy” that publishers demand with eBooks. Publishers would likely counter with the simple economic truth that eBook sales for frontlist books would drop significantly if readers discovered that all eBooks were available without any delay at libraries. Librarians might counter-argue that these free books will increase sales down the line, and readers could easily pirate eBooks rather than buy them if they can’t be found for free legitimately.

I for one hope that the ALA expands upon the Random House breakfast by discussing experimental plans to keep libraries as a legitimate, profitable sales channel for publishers, ways to improve library UI for eBooks, and the possibility of reader data collection with third party library platforms. Whether or not conservatism or boldness will prevail depends in my mind on whether one of the Big 5 publishers is willing to take the first step of making backlist eBooks freely available, setting an example for others to follow, or at least to watch closely for the economic results.

Do you think any hope for further cooperation is possible, or naive? Do you think publishers are right to be wary, or too conservative to take the necessary course of action? Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!

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