Should Libraries Get Out of the eBook Business?

KindleOr get out at least until there is a better system?

I know what you are going to say, I can hear it already – “We can’t! Our patrons demand ebooks!” Except the truth is our patrons want a lot of things we can’t give them – to always be first on the waiting list for the new James Patterson, to not pay fines when their books are late, for the library to be open earlier or later, or to have a system besides Dewey because despite using it their entire lives they still cannot figure it out. When it comes to ebooks, we cannot give them what they want, not really, we cannot give them books from Simon and Schuster or MacMillian or new books from Penguin or Hatchet, and not more than 26 times from HarperCollins, and probably not many books from Random House. What we can do, what maybe we should do, is spend their tax money wisely, and I am no longer convinced that spending it on the current ebook system is a wise move.

The Demand:

First let’s look at the demand. As librarians we spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about books and subsequently ebooks. But the truth is we spend far more time focusing on ebooks than the population. Reports vary on the actual percentage of the population that own an ereader, but general consensus agrees that after the holiday season this year it is only about 19 percent of the population that owns an ereader, if you factor in tablets that number rises to 29%. Of course there is no guarantee that those tablet owners are reading ebooks on their device, but I’ll be generous and go with 29%. Ok, you say but we still have to serve that 29%.

The Supply

But what are we serving them? One only has to look at Library Journal’s A Guide to Publishers in the Library Ebook Market to realize it’s pretty slim pickings. So we’re providing a mediocre access at best.

The Process

Plus if you have the fortune to be the person at your library who is responsible for helping patrons with ebooks and troubleshooting problems you know that the process is a nightmare. In order to borrow library ebooks a patrons must have a compatible device, a home computer capable of running Adobe Digital Editions, a high-speed internet connection, and enough tech savvy to set everything up and get it to work correctly. If all goes well, wonderful! But if one thing goes wrong, woe to the librarian providing support over the phone. Honestly the process is a nightmare. The most beautiful thing to happen to the ebook lending process was the partnership with Amazon that allowed it to happen wirelessly.

A Mess

The whole thing is a hot mess. A hot mess that is consuming our time, our resources and a our money. We are in the midst of the ebook wars, just look at the number of proprietary systems and file formats.

Or look at the regular headlines about publishers fighting with Amazon over pricing, the latest being Amazon yanks 5,000 titles from Independent Publishers Group, a Chicago book distributor.

I can’t help but wonder if Guy LeCharles Gonzales is right when he writes:

Stop buying ebooks across the board, at any price, under any terms. Let publishers fight it out with Amazon, and when the dust finally settles (it will) and a viable business model appears (maybe), begin negotiating anew, on solid ground, with whomever’s left standing.

In the meantime, libraries can redirect those precious resources and finances being flagged for ebooks towards more tangible initiatives in their respective communities.

Surely every library has a service gap or three to fill that’s more valuable than overpaying for temporary licenses to files and platforms they don’t own, that may or may not work on their patrons’ devices of choice, and whose pricing can fluctuate more wildly than that of crude oil and Netflix stock.

Maybe libraries should just stop buying ebooks until there is a real, viable solution to the situation. Do not mistake me, I do not think we should stop looking for a solution or stop advocating on behalf of our patrons, but I do think perhaps we should stop throwing good money at a bad solution.

I am certainly not the only one thinking about this, Andy Woodworth offers a list of alternative uses for your ebook budgets. I have suggested it before and I will suggest it again, take a look a Library Renewal.

We need a solution to the library/ebook problem, we need a seat at the table in ebook discussions, but right now libraries (and our patrons) are just collateral damage in the ebooks war.

Karen Schneider points out in her recent post about publishers, ebooks, and libraries:

Note that publishers have had their eyes on libraries for a long time. A pioneering librarian, Marvin Scilken, led the charge to expose imbalance in bookstore/library pricing decades ago, which resulted in an agreement on library pricing that no doubt has stuck in publishers’ craws ever since. (See his Wikipedia bio, cf. the section “1966 Senate Hearing on the Price Fixing of Library Books.”) Depending on who is in office, there would have to be some similar sympathy these days. Studying those hearings and their arguments might be useful. (Just like studying librarians of yore is valuable. Definitely at least one entire week in my Fantasy Library Class.)

How Marvin proceeded, and succeeded, might be a very useful research question to pursue in the ALA library and ALA archives — and could be a great class project for that class I don’t have time to teach. But one thing’s for sure: the good work Marvin did in 1966 is now being upended. Then again, maybe, in its own way, it can be repeated.

I have been thinking for a while now that we will not find a solution by politely saying “please, sir, I want some more“. After all we (as a society not libraries) did not get the first sale doctrine out of the goodness of someone’s heart, it came from a court case. Maybe we need to stop asking. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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168 comments for “Should Libraries Get Out of the eBook Business?

  1. Barb
    March 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Remember when libraries didn’t purchase many, if any, of that brand new format DVD because everybody had VHS players and nobody had DVD players. Libraries even used to loan out DVD players! And some libraries I know would only purchase a DVD movie IF and only IF it was based on a book! Times change, formats and media change and this too will pass but yeah, for now, provide ebooks as best you can and work for a solution. Pretty reasonable. It doesn’t have to be either/or. Sometimes this discussion seems more like a struggle over what Bobbi said or did not say. To me it is provide ebooks if you can and work on a solution.

    • Tim
      March 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm

      The brains of the naysayers apparently ossified in the 20th century. There is no turning back.

      The future is this: If libraries can’t supply downloadables, people will get them somewhere else. You must quit nit-picking over the risks & go forward.

      True, no one knows how issues with the publishers, etc., will shake out; but libraries must build collections of timely & relevant downloadables (which their patrons really want and need!). You should do the best you can with what is available in order to sustain patron support as they also make the digital transition.

      It is also true that no one can say how long the shift to downloadables will take. Print did not supplant manuscript books overnight. However, it did happen! Technology doesn’t go backwards!

      This will not be pretty. There will be messes, mistakes and miscalculations. Don’t worry about it. But you must begin with the premise that downloadable formats will eventually dominate. If you don’t, you and your institutions will go the way of the horse and buggy.

  2. Sam
    March 10, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    “only about 19 percent of the population that owns an ereader”

    I wonder what percentage of the population goes to the library? I also wonder what percentage of the population that goes to the library also owns an ereader or tablet.

    This is a good article with a good suggestion. But, I think more statistics could help other libraries decide whether or not it would reduce the societal value of the library by removing e-books because of unsettled economic systems.

  3. March 12, 2012 at 8:19 am

    There’s a much higher percentage that 29% when you look at the people that buy and read the most books. You know, the people most interested in your services.

    I am one of those people. I have a Kindle, and I never get a book from my library because the few books listed that I might be interested in are never available. Do you have any idea how much easier it is to get a book to read via BitTorrent?

    The market _is_ screwed up. Look at books on Amazon, and you’ll be surprised how often the paper book costs more than the ebook. But backing out isn’t how to settle the problem. Don’t spend on the dumb systems that exist today, but get together, decide what will work better for everyone and make it known so someone can make it available.

    Also, make sure you demand a system that doesn’t shut out independent publishers. In the modern world, there are thousands of great books that don’t come from the Big Six. And even more good ones (mine for example). I’d be happy to GIVE my ebooks to libraries (or sell it inexpensively, depending on the system involved). Yet there’s no way for me to let you lend my ebooks. Your loss.

    First goal – kill off DRM, to kill off the control that DRM gives publishers and vendors.

  4. Valerie Piechocki
    March 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    In my opinion suggesting that libraries get out of the eBook business – even temporarily – makes about as much sense as suggesting people give up their cell phones and go back to using land lines.

    People are buying ereaders like crazy and looking for content for them. While I agree that we can’t buy all the content we’d like to provide, I can’t think of any faster way for libraries to become irrelevant to a rapidly growing audience then by suspending the purchase of ebooks.

    Instead we should be educating our customers about publisher practices and encouraging them to email complaints directly to those publishers. All of the publishers have web sites, and anyone using an ereader likely has the skills to send email.

    Emails from the hundreds of thousands of library customers who download ebooks from libraries would have a much stronger impact on publishers than a few hundred emails from frustrated librarians.

  5. Wayne
    March 14, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Please excuse me if I missed this in any other comment, but I am concerned that the measurement used here is only the cost of an ebook vs a print book. I think what is missing is the cost of getting the content into a patron’s hands. So consider, the Harper Collins ebooks in the current NYTimes best seller list can circ 26 times, but the cost is only $22.99 per copy with restrictions. That is less than $1 per circ. I looked at a few libraries and the cost per circ for print was far higher. I suspect that this could vary widely library by library. Random House is more difficult but to reach that $1 threshold would require 70 circs of a copy. Since there is no deterioration of the copy, nor will it be lost or stolen, that may be very doable. So in my heart Bobbie I agree with you, but in my mind there is a big red flag waving side to side.

    • March 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

      Unfortunately you also need to figure in the large fees that the middle man (I’m not naming names) charges in addition to the cost of the individual books. You also need to consider that if you paid $22.99 for a print book you own it. Period. You do not own ebooks you are leasing them and the terms of that lease can be changed at any time without warning or discussion as both HarperCollins and Penguin have demonstrated.

  6. March 14, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Bobbie: 2 quick points to you recent comment. first libraries CAN by ebooks too if they so choose. Dzanc has set up very fair an equitable pricing for libraries. Second. a licensing agreement can not be changed once the contract is signed. Harper and Penguin didnt change existing contractual terms, they said in the future these were the terms they would offer. The thing is we are all arguing around the issue. The SOLE issue is the face of libraries as we know it has changed and will be very very different in the next few years do to ebooks. Libraries can either get on board with these changes or go the way of the independent bookstore. Its really that simple. Ebooks arent going away. The issue is whether libraries can figure out how to exist while offering ebooks to the public. The surest way to do this is with a patron system an with libraries dealing in partnership directly with publishers and cutting out the middle man. The elephant in the room is that publishers can figure a way to create their own libraries and not only cut out the middleman but public libraries, too. Dzanc does not want to see this happen. Dzanc wants to work with libraries. But truly time is of the essence. All this talk is good but the time is also for action. As we speak servers are being designed to create the “new” library for ebooks. Are public libraries ready to get involved as they must or will they vanish as we know them?

  7. March 19, 2012 at 12:08 am

    I totally agree with this argument. What is the point of putting more money into a broken system? The only thing I would add to all of these comments and arguments is….what about the kids? There have been thoughts in the above arguments and discussions that the library is heading out the door. As a children’s librarian and a mom of a two year old, I will proclaim steadfastly THEY ARE NOT!

    Who among you would put a tablet or eReader securely and without fear into the hands of a toddler? (If you answer yes, you don’t have kids). Where is the joy in pop-up books on an eReader? How can you lift the flap on a tablet? What about graphic novels for ANY age? It’s just not the same without having to try and prop the book open under your covers with a flashlight. Bottom line…KIDS LOVE BOOKS! They love to feel them, hold them, chew on them, rip them, and cherish them. With the children….come the PARENTS! That fact alone will keep libraries in business for thousands of years to come. Do you know how much a good picture book costs? If I had to go out and buy all those books for my daughter? I would be in the poor house. A picture book on a tablet or eReader? No thanks, not the same. Storytime on an eReader? HA! HA! HA! Would love to see that one! This storytime brought to you live on YouTube? Would be awesome to supplement, but let’s give our kids more screen time then they already have? Oh no! We want to go to the library so we can socialize with real, living people! (I hope you get the sarcasm here).

    How about those people that can’t afford eReaders? I can’t afford a tablet or reader, I rely on poor old paper books. I’m 26 years old. I’m a mom. I have college loans. I HAVE NO MONEY! I work in a library who serves the very very rich and the extremely poor. Our circulation statistics are out the roof, for books, no eBooks. Now, that may be just my area, but you get my drift.

    Libraries are not headed out the door and if we were to pause and breathe from the eBooks and eReaders, but still keep our head in the game, we would not be hurting anyone. In fact, we may be helping.

    M. Bear said on March 8, 2012 at 1:32am “I don’t know, boycotting has a long and proud history for being effective. Kind of like striking, but for stuff.” AMEN BROTHER! Just because we have eBooks doesn’t mean we have to keep having them. COULD YOU IMAGINE GETTING YOUR PATRONS TO BOYCOTT WITH YOU?? Instead of handing out those little cards with publisher information, hand out cards that say STAND WITH YOUR LIBRARY, BOYCOTT EBOOKS! Betcha won’t do it!

    • Jessica
      May 14, 2012 at 5:41 pm

      While not a toddler, my 5 year old does have an e-reader and loves it. Many of her friends use them as well.
      We aren’t “rich” but we knew for our family it was something worth saving and providing for her. We do storytime with both real books and Ebooks at our house. Ebooks aren’t the devil and they aren’t trying to drive away “real” books either. There is room for both.

      I want my daughter to continue to love to read. And if she likes to read on an e-reader, I’m going to encourage that that. It’s actually much easier for her to have to keep up with ONE thing than the bags of books we used to lug around everywhere.

  8. March 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    My comment has to do with your definition of “demand” based on the percentage of population that owns an eReader or tablet. As one commenter already pointed out, you can also read eBooks on desktop PCs, and laptops, so you really ought to count those folks in your demand numbers, and even more importantly, you need to count smart phone owners, which currently approaches 48% of all Americans (see the recent Pew report: Your estimate of demand is way too low.

  9. John Keogh
    March 23, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I can’t find any flaws in this argument. And I agree that libraries can’t allow themselves to be perceived primarily as a source of ebooks.

    But I think it would be a mistake for us to stop buying and offering them. Because there’s more to this than throwing good money after bad. It’s also a matter of leverage and public perception.

    Consider what would happen if libraries did drop ebooks:

    We’d be walking away from our best chance to play a real role in determining the direction of ebook development. We’d be giving up our say in hammering out better distribution agreements with publishers. Sure, libraries would still sit down at a table with publishing houses and try to get them to understand the value of fair use – but without libraries demanding access for existing services, and backing up those demands with documented immediate patron need, we’d have no real leverage to negotiate and publishers would know it. Why would they listen to us if we show them that we’ll walk away when the going gets tough? If we walk away from ebooks now, we relegate ourselves to a largely passive role in the development of the technology and establishment of access.

    Ebooks – and, more importantly, the as-yet unforeseen technologies for which ebooks will be a progenitor – will only become more important and ubiquitous in the future of information access. What would it say about libraries if we walked away from them now?

    It would say to people that we don’t care about the future of information access. It would say that we can’t be bothered. It would reinforce the perception of libraries as outmoded institutions, mired in old-fashioned routines and unwilling to adapt.

    All of this is fundamentally untrue – but that wouldn’t matter. Instead of seeing libraries in the thick of it, working to find the best path, people would only see us standing aside.

    If we walk away from ebooks now, it makes us irrelevant. Regardless of all the other essential services we offer, this is the perception that will stick in popular consciousness.

    We cannot afford that.

    Do we need to be much more strategic about how we dedicate our resources to ebook systems that don’t work?


    But if we want to ensure that we’ll be able to offer useful, robust ebook access to our patrons in the future, what better way to accomplish that than to stay in the fight, now, when we have the power to set the precedents that will determine the course this technology will take?

    • March 24, 2012 at 8:43 am

      John, you make a good point. But you presume that libraries have leverage with publishers today and that the basis for that leverage is libraries’ share of publishers’ revenue from ebook sales. I doubt that libraries can ever hope to be such big buyers of ebooks that they significantly influence publishers’ strategic decisions. Rather, what leverage libraries to have and will have is a product of how libraries and their role in society are perceived by the general book-buying public. That’s something that exists (or not) regardless of how many ebooks libraries purchase.

      • John Keogh
        March 24, 2012 at 10:58 pm

        Michael, you’re correct – unfortunately. Although, there are compelling numbers to show libraries encourage book and ebook buying. People find authors they like at the library and then go buy their books at the store. Personally, I’ve always used my public library as a venue to discover and “test drive” books before I decide to spend my money on them.

        For me, this is primarily an issue of perception. Right now, something like only 16% of public library patrons use ebooks through their libraries. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that only 16% of want ebooks – many more patrons probably do want ebboks through us, they just get too frustrated with the byzantine access systems and give up. For those patrons, what will it say to them if we just stop offering ebooks completely? No matter how well we explain the rational and tell them that we’re still fighting for ebook access for them, it will never be the same as showing them, through our actions, that we’re fighting for it.

        Ceasing to offer ebooks won’t show them that.

  10. March 28, 2012 at 10:08 am

    I am interested, Meg, as a publisher, how do libraries intend to do this? Dzanc as said supports libraries but there must be a concrete plan in place. What is your plan?

  11. Linda Marazoni
    March 28, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    This is a great thread. I’ve really enjoyed reading it. I recently discovered the wonderful service the library provides for us and I usually have 4 or 5 books (paper) checked out. Having a limited income, I don’t want our libraries to go away. But, I have been uneasy about the slow growth of ebooks in the library (because I fear that will be their demise if they don’t offer as many ebooks as they do paper books in the future) and that is what brought me here. I have a couple of ideas that I would like to throw out as ‘food for thought’. When and if ebooks do become a large offering in public libraries, what about offering a service that allows the reader to purchase the book? I know that I often purchase my own copy of a book when I really, really like it. This may provide some leverage when negotiating with the publishers. Also, I think it would be TERRIFIC if libraries would offer a web account like ‘’ within the library’s web service. I use ‘’ to find books others recommend, to indicate I have read a book, to list books I want to read, to find books in a series by one author, etc. I would love for this to be offered by my library.

  12. M.Artis
    April 4, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I work at a academic library were our patrons is exposed to very few ebooks. We have very few patrons that even ask about them. One of the main reasons could be that we having really publicize the few that we do actually have.

  13. Jessica
    May 14, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    I guess I am in the minority here. My library (Memphis Public) has a decent and easy system for checking out ebooks. They don’t have everything of course, but the waiting lists are always manageable (My longest wait is for Game of Thrones and in 2 weeks I’ve gone from 54th on the list to 17th) and the process to put them on my kindle (and take them off) couldn’t be simpler. A few clicks and it’s done. I LOVE checking out free ebooks even if they don’t have everything I want. I’ve read probably 40 books from the library ebook collection in the past 2.5 months. I’m not one to complain about FREE. I would love to see the system evolve and grow, but I am very happy with what they have to offer because they don’t have to offer anything.

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