Monday, March 19, 2012

Library eBooks: A simple solution to a difficult problem

Whether school and public libraries should have access to eBooks depends on what kind of a publisher you are. If you're a smaller general or specialty publisher, it's not an issue--your company most likely already supplies eBooks to libraries. However, if you're one of the Big 6 trade publishers, there's a 66% chance that you don't offer eBooks to libraries at all. Only HarperCollins and Random House offer their eBook titles to libraries, and both companies apply significant restrictions: HarperCollins titles can only be checked out 26 times before they have to be repurchased, and Random House recently tripled the cost that libraries pay for their eBooks. Penguin, which once sold eBooks to libraries, has pulled out of the market, and Hachette, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster don't sell eBooks to libraries at all.

Publishers that either don't sell to libraries or sell with restrictions argue that library eBook lending cannibalizes potential sales of both eBooks and print. They say that it's as easy to borrow an eBook as it is to purchase one from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Print books require patrons to visit their local library in order to check-out and return them, and publishers want libraries to implement a similar kind of "friction" when lending eBooks (although publishers generally won't go on the record about which kinds of "friction" would be acceptable.)

A variety of solutions have been suggested, from forcing patrons to physically visit a library in order to check-out eBooks, to slicing and dicing collections and parceling out different pieces at different times to libraries. In my opinion, forcing patrons to visit libraries in order to check-out eBooks completely negates the value of the Internet and online access. It takes the progress of library access back almost 20 years. As for making available different batches of titles at different times, that's likely to become a formula for patron confusion. Consider two titles, published by the same publisher on the same day. One could be available for lending immediately, but the other might not be available for months, if ever. Who will explain that to patrons? Librarians, of course, who have better things to do with their time.

I'd like to suggest a simpler, easier approach to the entire problem for those Big 6 publishers who are afraid of what libraries will do to their businesses: Delay the release of their eBooks to libraries. If your street date for a title is X, release the eBook version to libraries at X plus 90 or 120 days. That enables the retail channel to absorb the initial demand, and those consumers who have to read the title right away will buy it. The technical name for this approach is windowing, and it's been done by the motion picture industry for decades. In the movie business, there are many windows (for theaters, pay-per-view, DVD/Blu-Ray, streaming, pay cable, free cable/broadcast, airlines, etc.), but a single window for library eBooks would be much simpler to understand and explain.

If publishers are serious about supporting libraries and aren't looking for ways to discourage eBook borrowing by making it as difficult and confusing as possible, a single library eBook window would be the best way to protect publishers' financial interests (at least until eBooks become the primary book format) while providing library access to all eBooks in a reasonable amount of time.
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