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 thoughts on “Should Libraries Get Out of the eBook Business?

  1. Most people will say that “there is no easy answer to this question” but I’ll disagree. Yes, we should get out of this business (I like to call it a “game” because it feels more and more like that)

    Libraries have always said “we’re about so much more than books” and the public still keep thinking that we were only about books. But we finally have this chance to shift the public perception of libraries.

    Moments like these only come every once in a long while. I think we should take advantage of it before its too late.


    1. Excellent point, Justin. It would be disastrous for libraries to become known primarily as a source of ebooks. This is an opportune time for librarians to consider, debate and agree on what they should be known for.


    2. What a fascinating thread! I have counted 15 pages of commentary thus far and have recommended the original article and the ripostes to the members of our library staff. A few observations: while the subject de jour is e-books the variety of opinions about whether to disengage, stick with e-books because they are desired by patrons even if the arrangement is less than optimal etc. really reflects our ambivalence about who we are and what we ought to be doing. Personally, I believe that e-books as the defining image for libraries is a bad bet. “The place for e-books” is not how I want to define our role as a community resource. Think of it this way: are e-books a necessity or an amenity? I’d proffer the latter as the answer, and an imagine built on free access to e-books as a tenuous basis for the survival of institutions such libraries.


  2. I’ve been mulling this over the past week. We are still going ahead, but I’m starting to lean towards what is discussed. I’m curious to hear how many libraries have stopped purchasing eBooks in the last couple weeks? Anyone?


  3. Thanks, Bobbi. At long last, a proposal for a sane response by libraries to the fight between publishers and Amazon. When libraries can start spending their money on ebooks without joining one side or the other in that battle, and when publishers start selling all their ebook titles to libraries without prohibitive prices or other restrictions, then libraries can start buying ebooks again. Meanwhile, let’s use our precious dollars to expand literacy, serve the unserved and help close the digital gap, among other things.


  4. I try to check out books via overdrive but there is a long waiting list for most of them. Books for the Kindle I have signed up for over a year ago are not available yet because there are so many people ahead of me. However, the paper versions are on the shelf and ready for check out.


    1. “Books for the Kindle I have signed up for over a year ago are not available yet because there are so many people ahead of me. However, the paper versions are on the shelf and ready for check out.”

      Wow. What does THAT say about the relative demand for e-books, Bobbi? How can you justify “there’s no demand” in the face of this?


        1. No, you said that there was very little demand. Will you stop mincing words, or do I need to quote your own words again?

          What you’re really saying is that you can’t meet the *very large* demand without spending more money than you want to spend. That’s an entirely different problem.

          Work the *real* problem – the costs – instead of trying to pretend that there’s little demand.


          1. To a great extent the cost and demand go hand-in-hand, but this doesn’t solve the ebook problem. What good does having to wait 3 to 12 months for an ebook? The rights holders of ebooks love the high demand, but libraries do not serve these stakeholders.


      1. I’ve found that in some library regions that don’t restrict the number of holds a user can place, the long waiting lists for e-books is sometimes the result of only a few users placing many holds on many different e-books. But that is just my experience….it might not be the same across the board.


        1. My virtual library OWWL2go restricts digital holds to 4. This helps alot. Because some people will go whacko placing holds on anything and everything whether they want it or not. Just because they can.


  5. Thank you!! I know Kansas did a lot of great work to get ebooks out from the Overdrive model, but with the recent price hikes from Random House…it seems like it might be a good moment to step back and wait.


  6. yes, these are terrible products where we have little or no control for all the money we spend. but so long as the circ stats stay high, we’ll continue to expand our collection. if the demand continues, then we’ll devote the money and staff to supporting the service, just like any other service. but we’re not going to pay $100 for an ebook when we get the hardcover for $12.
    I think the answer could be from a national public library and crowdfunding to get books directly from authors. but when that’s gonna happen, I don’t know. but another good answer is to just quit supporting a business that treats us like crap.


  7. You raise some very valid points, but I have to insist that finding a way to make ebooks work must be a priority. While not many users have ereaders/tablets now, this percentage is only going up, and keeping up with modern mediums is imperative to staying relevant.

    I hail from Toronto, and the libraries here are in a bad state due to a very unfriendly municipal government. The TPL is very supported in this city, and so far public outcry has prevented major cutbacks/restructuring – the city’s love for the TPL is rooted in a lot of facets, one of significance is that the TPL has always been relevant, modern, and nontraditional, and the adoption of ebooks via the kobo (Canada’s answer to the Kindle)is very much a part of that.

    We face a lot of challenges as librarians, and budgeting is forefront, but compromising relevancy is not an option. If will don’t update now, doing so in the future, when it’s all but required for operation, will be far more difficult. Finding a solution to ebook budgeting must be a priority.


    1. I agree. As I said I’m not saying we stop looking for a solution, but rather that public libraries stop paying for a bad solution. But these are two separate things. We can be working towards a solution that works without paying for a bad product.


      1. It’s hard to step back and just pull it back if you’ve had the product for several years. My library circulates more eBooks than Large Print titles and I will actually be cutting my LP purchases because I get more for my money with eBooks despite the limitations and drawbacks. It may not be the best product but it’s what we got for now and allows patrons with most devices to check out books 24/7.


      2. The big six would love nothing more than for us to step away. In the meantime, they will continue to market to direct consumers. This will teach them that libraries are irrelevant when it comes to e-books. By the time a solution is worked out, if ever, our patrons will have found another way. As unappetizing as it is, we must stand our ground and stay in the e-book business. This too, will pass.


  8. Given the demand we have for eBooks, I think it would be poor customer service to stop providing them. Almost all of our eBooks are always checked out, and the most common feedback I receive from patrons is that they want more eBooks. Libraries make up such a small percentage of purchases (and further limit sales by providing “free” eBooks to patrons) that even if every library stopped buy eBooks, I doubt the publishing industry would care. We need to prove to publishers and distributors that it is worth their effort to provide a better eBook solution to libraries.


    1. I think that “demand” is part of the problem. The truth is it isn’t even half of the public demanding them. While it maybe painful short term to explain why the library isn’t offering ebooks, it’s not more painful than explaining why the library doesn’t have a Simon & Schuster or MacMillan book.


      1. Well to refute a number of points from the main article:
        1) You don’t need to have an ereader to read ebooks. I have a laptop, and I do it all the time. Have a look at the percentage of people who have access to a laptop or a PC, and I bet it’ll be a LOT higher than the 29% mentioned as having a handheld device.

        2) There are certain publishers who are not currently making ebooks available to libraries – more fool them. They lose out on all the purchases which come from recommendations from library patrons. Eventually publishing houses which have properly embraced the library ebook (several of which are small companies) will get better exposure, and that’ll lead to greater competition. If the patrons are complaining about being unable to get a particular publisher’s book, tell them to complain to the PUBLISHER. Set up a simple process to allow them to do this! If you don’t have the skills to design a webform, find someone who can.

        3) As for those patrons complaining ‘for the library to be open earlier or later’, refer them to the digital system. I regularly borrow at 2 in the morning, without moving from my bedroom. It’s INCREDIBLY convenient.

        4) One of the other commenters mentioned that they can frequently find the paper copy of a book on the shelf, while the ebook copies have very long waiting lists. Part of that is a software problem. I gather the next edition of Overdrive will allow you to ‘return’ books once you’ve finished with them, but right now you have to just wait for the time period to elapse. On a wider scale though, it says a lot about where the demand from the patrons actually exists. You can say that only a certain percentage of the public wants ebooks all you like, but if they’re the ones constantly in circulation, you’re missing something.

        I’m not suggesting that there aren’t SIGNIFICANT problems with the current ebook pricing model, but throwing your hands up and saying ‘We’re not going to play any more’ really doesn’t help to resolve the issue.


        1. Deb – no where in the post did I suggest we withdraw from the issue or “stop playing”. Individual libraries or library systems paying money for a bad or broken system does nothing to resolve the issue, so I’m suggesting they stop paying until a better solution is found. Of course we need to keep looking for a better solution.


          1. It would seem whether content can be circulated once for a defined period or simultaneously 26 or 50 times for a defined period the crux of the problem is demand, cost and medium. If, as the content provider, I can demand more dollars for content delivered to information consumers via a popular and convenient medium then consumers or their advocates have to make cost benefit choices.


      2. I’m still digesting your larger message and am not sure where my opinion would fall, but there’s one little point I’d like to make.

        While it may only be 25% of the general population that owns an ereader, 100% of people with ereaders are reading people! Of the remaining population that does not own an ereader, I’d bet that not even a majority of them are readers who are checking out physical books from our libraries.

        So while the stat in the general population may be that 1 in 4 people own an ereader, is it safe to say that 1 in 3, or even closer to 1 in 2, of our reading patrons owns an ereader and could be interested in our eBooks?


        1. The issue for libraries isn’t what patrons want. We know they want ebooks, in a wide variety of titles that are quickly and easily accessible. The issue is that publishers’ current pricing and restrictions are preventing libraries from delivering what patrons want. We shouldn’t stop trying to deliver ebooks to patrons. We just should stop spending money and staff time on over-priced, overly restricted ebook titles.


        2. Sorry if we’re really going to get into the stats I’ll have to break it down some more. I was being very generous allowing that full 29% from tablets and ereaders. But unfortunately statstics show that tablet owners are really reading ebooks at 21%
          So let’s say that 100% of ebook owners are readers, that makes 19% of the population. But only 21% of ebook owners are readers that means 2.1% of the population. So 19% plus 2.1% equals 21.1%. Now you’re also assuming that reader = library user, which while often the case isn’t necessarily the case. Knowing what we know about the demographics of ereaders we also have to assume that a portion of them are the part of the population that chooses to purchase books and not utilize the library. Having worked in a library and a book store simultaneously I know the two aren’t mutually exclusive, I’m just pointing there are gaps in your leaps of logic. So at best we can safely assume that’s more like 20%. The other part of the equation is that no one I know who owns an ereader has completely forsaken print. So while people might have an ereader it doesn’t mean they aren’t perfectly willing to use print


          1. I was given an ereader for Christmas. since i rarely buy books i did not think it would be used very much. i use my Kindle fire often for games and free ebooks. i don’t use the library ebook system since if i can get the book in regular book format I’d rather do that. amazon does make it easy to download books but a lot of my favorite authors either have long waiting lists or are simply not available as an ebook. they might have a digital audio version available but i don’t like to be read to. soo until more ebooks are available and i can search the digital library catalog and put holds on an item and have lots of items checked out just like i can within the regular library system, i won’t be using library ebooks.


          2. Regarding the suggestion that we need more data, I wanted to mention the the Pew Reseach Center’s Internet & American Life Project is conduction some important research now. Their first report indicating the rise in eReader and Tablet ownership over the holidays just pushed out some early data that was too hot to hold. The larger report on the rise in eReader is slated for publication in April; I hope that next phase of research will be the most useful for librarians and patrons. The summer report will drill down specifically into eReading and libraries. The national consumer research is well under way and in April Pew will open up voluntary surveys: one for librarians and one for library patrons. Will definitely provide links and background on those surveys through Bobbie and hope for your input. If all goes well, that report will be available in June!
            One other note, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded three phases of research with Pew Internet. The eReading series is just the first phase. The second phase will include consumer research and focus groups to better understand consumer priorities for library services, i.e. what services are the most – and least valuable – to library patrons and others. Will definitely check back here for input on the research series!


  9. Or at least start working on the Douglas County Library System model crafted by Jamie LaRue—work with independent and self published materials—become an ebook publisher. As he talks about at conferences, self publishing is becoming the norm. Gosh this is a great opinion piece above! Thanks for posting.


    1. Sharon,
      I’m familiar with Jamie’s work and think its great for independent and self published materials. However when I see comments like the ones about about the “demand” for ebooks I know that those demands are not for self published works but for popular titles from the Big Six.


  10. Readers use libraries — to borrow books, to learn about new ones, to interact with other people like themselves who use books.

    My overall concern for the future of libraries isn’t the container (print or electronic) or even the collection (ie is it on our shelves or stored remotely, a purchase or a purchase only if borrowed, etc.) but the role we have in connecting readers to what they want/need to read and to each other.

    We may best serve the readers by taking a step back to see if having ebooks at this time is the right place to be; I think things are at such a flux that we need to keep thinking and discussing strategies, plans, and what our future will (or won’t) be.


  11. I totally disagree. In order to stay relevant, we have to give our customers what they want and, at least where I work, it’s eBooks. Stop offering eBooks and watch a new generation of potential library users completely ignore you.

    It’s sort of like taking your toys and going home.


    1. Or it’s like this: You advertise you have ebooks, cuz ebooks are Where It’s At! and you get a 30 something single woman without kids to check out the library. (People who are out of school but without children are one of the demographics that libraries struggle to connect with AND 30 somethings are more likely to own an ereader or tablet). She hasn’t used the library since she was in high school but she’d love to read some popular fiction on her iPad, so she decides to check it out. Except. EXCEPT.First she has to come down to the library to get a card. She has to prove she’s a resident and fill out some paper work. Then she has to go home and get on her computer there because you can’t actually check out ebooks inside the library. The book she wants isn’t available because the publisher (Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, Penguin, Hatchet, pick one) doesn’t allow libraries to loan ebooks (or new ebooks) to libraries. But she figures she’ll see what else is available, but thanks to the long wait times for popular materials she can’t find anything she wants to read. If she does, she has to go through the complicated process of install software on her computer or an app on her tablet, which may or may not go well. In the end she gives up and just buys a freaking book, because that, that WORKS. And the library? Well as far as she concerned you lured her in the door with false promises and you can only hope then when, and if, she has children she’ll be swayed by the awesomeness that is storytime to step foot through your doors again.


      1. EXACTLY!!!! wow, have you been to my library?? this has happened so many times. i mean exactly as described.


      2. I am squarely in that demographic (well, young married woman without children) and I love the library–for both print and e-books. Admittedly, as someone who works in publishing, I’m a lot more understanding about the lack of access to certain titles and don’t bother looking for new releases from the big publishers (other than RH) as e-books. Instead, I use the same online catalog to reserve a dead-tree copy. Real readers aren’t going to be that easily turned away from an institution that provides free books!


  12. An interesting discussion. My first impression of the article was that it’s just another, “Let’s chuck it all and go back to the good old days of paper, where everything made sense” piece. With apologies, it reads that way the second time through, too.

    Yes, the publishing and library industries are in a huge state of flux right now. Just as with music and video, digital technology has given publishers unprecedented control over the market. That means it’s tough for customers – including libraries – to apply traditional supply/demand pressures to the system.

    But to disengage, to walk away, only ensures that libraries will have no voice in the discussion moving forward; no influence on the final shape of the marketplace. And while 30% might not seem like a lot, it was half that two years ago, and half THAT two or three years before that. Ebooks are being adopted at a faster rate than digital cameras. This isn’t a fad that’s going to go away, or some slow-moving trend that you can wait out for a “better deal”. Walking away from ebooks now will leave libraries in the same position as Kodak: increasingly irrelevant in a world they won’t embrace.

    Sure, things are confusing and difficult now. If you don’t actively work to bring value to the ebook model for libraries, it’ll soon be a whole lot worse.


    1. It’s like you quit reading half way through the post. Both times. I clearly state “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.” And I talk (or at least hint heavily) at possible solutions. I say nothing about the good ole days o’ print nor do I say that libraries should completely withdraw from ebook discussions. In fact I say the opposite.

      The issue is this – a library paying for an ebooks subscription service is not advocating for a better model. It’s not ensuring we have a place at the table, it’s not helping to build a brighter future. It’s paying for a bad model. That is a separate issue from fighting for our future or a place in ebooks that works for our patrons. I am definitely saying we – that is librarians and other advocates – should continue fighting for a solution that actually works, but we can do that without libraries paying for a poor serice.


      1. So how do you have any legitimacy in that “fight”, if you don’t even carry/provide e-books? E-book suppliers will see you as a non-entity if you’re not a customer.

        How do you have any leverage if you simply abandon the product?


    2. And that 30% doesn’t include smartphones. I read all my fiction on my phone and I suspect I am not the only one. And since it is through my Overdrive app, it’s actually pretty darn painless after the first setup. And fortunately, I am in MD which has a statewide consortium that has done a good job of putting money into ebooks so the wait time is reasonable. And sure, I can’t get all the cool, new books, but there are plenty of good ones to choose from that I haven’t read yet (and I am a typical library reader–completing about 5 books a month). My point is that I do think libraries need to supply ebooks and I think Maryland libraries at least, are doing a pretty good job. And yes, it has cost $$ but I think it’s been money well-spent.


  13. Bobbi, all those issues for your customer – those are the *library’s* problem to solve. Why on earth does your customer need a paper library card to check out ebooks? Why do they need to come in to the library at all? You’re clutching to an old model that’s increasingly irrelevant in a modern world.

    You may not want to hear this, but the days of brick-and-mortar libraries are numbered. The day will come – in our lifetimes – that the “Library” is a collection of servers owned by the municipality, and ALL books are checked out as ebooks. The job of the librarian will be to curate and manage the collection of *content*, which will mug more beyond text than it does even now.

    And you have a perfect opportunity here to strong-arm publishers a bit. When a patron asks for an ebook that the publisher won’t allow for library distribution, make sure the customer knows that. Give them a slip of paper (or a web link) with the publisher’# contact information and help them lodge a protest to the publisher. Give them a link to their Congressional representative, and have them complain there. The power in this situation is all in your hands, if you’ll use it.


    1. Marc
      I’m sorry but to “You may not want to hear this, but the days of brick-and-mortar libraries are numbered. The day will come – in our lifetimes – that the “Library” is a collection of servers owned by the municipality, and ALL books are checked out as ebooks” Is just wrong and ill informed. eBooks will not replace paper entirely and libraries are far more than distribution points for print books.

      As for giving the publishers contact information, we’re already doing that. I even wrote sample scripts for librarians and patrons to use in the conversations.


      1. Bobbi, do you read science fiction? Nearly everything I read set 50 years in the future has paper books being a total luxury – not something you’d lend to just anyone. How many ways are there for you to borrow or read a scroll nowawadays? That uses to be the only way that you could read something, but then a better technology (book binding) came along.
        I agree with Marc, elibraries are the way it’ll go in the future.


          1. I keep getting the comments from this thread in my e-mail, and it’s amusing to see your direction, Bobbi. Pretty much what I originally thought – you seem to think e-books are some minor “thing” that can be dismissed because it’s a challenge.

            Your own words:

            “eBooks will replace print the same way escalators replaced stairs.”

            But let’s use other, more pertinant, examples:

            eBooks will replace print the same way…

            …books replaced scrolls.

            …scrolls replaced clay and beeswax tablets.

            …e-mail replaced hand-written letters.

            …digital cameras replaced film.

            …digital video replaced film.

            …digital audio replaced records and tape.

            That last one is probably the MOST accurate, in that I do believe that there will be a residual market for high-end coffee-table books and such for many decades to come, even once the mainstream moves all-digital.

            Bobbi, your problem here is that you’ve tied yourself to a form of *media*, and your customers – your patrons – aren’t coming to the library for a form of media. You don’t understand what your patrons are actually “buying” with their time and effort, if not explicitly their cash.

            To illustrate: People spend money on quarter-inch drills. But not a single one of them wants a quarter-inch *drill*. They want a quarter-inch *hole* in something. Patrons of a library aren’t coming to the library for *books*. They’re coming to the library for *stories*, *news*, and *knowledge*. The media upon which that information is encoded doesn’t matter in the end – they’ll consume the information in whatever method is easiest for *them*, and the wishes of the librarian be damned. The library isn’t about you. It’s about *them*.

            So what’s going to drive libraries to be all-digital in the next 40 years? Costs. Costs to the city, and “costs” to the patrons.

            What’s the most effective thing a municipality can eliminate to cut library costs? The same thing that makes it hard to get a library set up in the first place: The building. The property. Maintenance alone is huge. The city can save more money by eliminating the building than they can by eliminating e-books, especially as the e-book market continues to grow at such an amazing pace.

            For the patrons, the “costs” are time and effort. How many more patrons could you reach if the library was, to them, a web page or a browsing screen on an e-reader or tablet? You listed earlier in this thread all the hoops your patrons have to jump through to get a physical library card and set up all their systems at home, just to get an e-book. I ask again, why does a patron need a *physical* library card to check out e-books? Why do they need to physically come to the library at all? It’s completely absurd to ask people to do all that, and then you bemoan that “so few” actually do it? With the kind of hurdles you’ve thrown up in their way, that nearly 30% of your patrons are willing to jump those hurdles is a testament to the desire they have to read e-books. Imagine if you actually made it *easy* for them?

            The interesting thing is, that the all-digital world is a way to make libraries – as connectors of people and information – MORE relevant and MORE accessible to a larger number of patrons. How many people in your city take the time to drive to a physical building to physically browse shelves of books, versus how many stay at home and browse web pages? Even a tenth of your population? The days of physically driving somewhere to browse media are over – how many record stores do you see these days? How’s Blockbuster Video doing?

            Thing is, none of the “community” functions of a library are necessarily tied to the physical building either. Reading contests – do ’em online. Community events can (and probably should) be held at City Hall, so citizens can reconnect with their government. Literacy days and activities with children – how nice would it be to do those in an outdoors pavillion at the city park, instead of yet another way to keep the kids inside? Show me anything a library does that requires a physical structure, and I can show you an effective and meaningful alternative.

            Lastly, you keep saying that you’re *not* advocating that libraries abandon e-books altogether. And yet you *are* advocating exactly that. Again, your words:

            “While it maybe painful short term to explain why the library isn’t offering ebooks, …”

            If that isn’t advocating abandoning e-book service, what is? How do you expect to have legitimacy in future e-book discussions or negotiations with publishers if your library doesn’t even carry them?

            Are libraries getting a raw deal from publishers on e-books right now? Yes. ABSOLUTELY. And Congress just today called a hearing in to e-book price-fixing. But abandoning e-books and “waiting for a better deal” is exactly the WRONG thing to do. You can have a voice in the larger discussion, or you can “take your toys and go home” and get handed whatever deal the rest of the world decides.


            1. You’re getting the comments in the email because you subscribed.

              I absolutely do not think ebooks are “some minor thing to be dismissed”. And while I may have a lot of problems tying myself to one form of media isn’t one of them. I think ebook and print will co-exist as do many educated well informed people. But words in my mouth or twisting my stance doesn’t make you right.


              1. And yet you dismiss them at every turn, to the point that you say libraries should stop carrying them, “until we can get a better deal”.

                Your mental gymnastics are truly awe-inspiring. No need for me to twist anything. And simply saying that I’m wrong doesn’t make it so, either, Bobbi.

                Ah, and now you’re trotting out the “‘many well educated well informed [sic] people’ agree with me!” argument.

                Sure. And a lot of “well-educated, well-informed” people in the film industry said that *their* form of media was going to stay around forever. All the C-level execs, marketing department, and researchers at Kodak, who find themselves in bankruptcy at the moment, for example.

                And the ENTIRE music industry, who thought digital downloads weren’t a threat and that CD’s would “co-exist” the same way you think print and e-books will “co-exist”.

                Bobbi, I design and build books for a living. Mostly print books, as a matter of fact! I *love* print. But I also see the handwriting on the wall. I’m moving my firm into co-production of print and e-books because I see that Amazon sold more e-books than hardcovers last year, and that e-book sales are set to eclipse even mass-market paperbacks within the next three to five years, at current adoption rates.

                The all-digital world of reading is coming. Fast. Sure, there will be coffee-table books and special editions in print for years and years to come. But you’re radically out of touch with the book market if you think that paper books are going to be anything more than a niche market even as soon as ten years from now.

                Again, I agree with you COMPLETELY that you’re currently getting a VERY raw deal from the publishers regarding e-books. Where you and I diverge is in what to do about it.

                You want to abandon e-books until some future day when the birds sing and fairness and apple pie return to the library business, and you can then start offering e-books again.

                I say use your (considerable) leverage with the public, and your close connections to government, to promote change NOW. You have such a HUGE arsenal of PR tools at your disposal, and the energy of a changing book market to leverage your influence with people who can dictate a more reasonable model for libraries.

                I wish you’d see that running away is never the answer. And that if you’re not taking part in *making* change, you’re going to be run over by it.


            2. I don’t think this is necessarily true. If libraries are just a place for free bestseller ebooks, then why do we need them? Seriously, what’s the point of a library if the only relevant service is spending taxpayer money on over-priced thrillers and sexy romance novels? I don’t think even I could justify that. My city pays $42 a person for the library. It would be much more efficient just to subsidize personal subscriptions to Amazon Prime. Maybe they could even get a good discount rate for half a million people.


              1. I reread your comment Marc, and I think I over-focused on one aspect of your comment. But I don’t think that printed books are obsolete. My local libraries (the buildings) are more popular than ever. Circulation statistics are through the roof.


                1. No worries, Christopher. What I *see* happening from my end of the industry is that hardcover titles are converting to e-books first – largely due to their extra bindery and shipping costs. Mass-market paperbacks are following more slowly, with less costs in bindery, but still having significant costs in warehousing and shipping. Digital can be warehoused and delivered essentially for free, by comparison.

                  In the “bestseller” categories you touched upon, I see print having a remaining life of *maybe* ten years, at best. And once that market converts, the economies of scale that it provides in the printing and bindery businesses will go away for more “legitimate” types of books. Eventually, their costs will climb because their printing and bindery are no longer being subsidized by the mass-market books.

                  It’s very similar to what happened in film. At first, digital photography was a high-end, experimental thing. About where we were with e-books until a couple of years ago. Once consumer cameras switched over to digital en masse, there were no more economies of scale for professional uses, so film and processing costs soared, and especially scanning costs for getting commercial images into the by-then all digital prepress workflow. Eventually, even for the high-end market of film, it was “convert or be left behind”.

                  As much as I love printed books (and have the groaning bookshelves to prove it) I see a very similar set of forces building for digital text. And the adoption rate for e-readers has been practically following an asymptotic curve in the last two years. Adoption rates are off the charts, and much faster than consumers adopted digital photography.

                  I’m really glad to hear that your local libraries are doing so well. Despite the impression that I may be leaving, I’m NOT anti-library. I just see that the “library of the future” is a very different animal than the library today. My HOPE is that it’s even more relevant and broadly used than the brick-and-mortar edifaces we have now. The broad and universal reach of a digital library is astounding, when you think about it. And I don’t think it’s the end of the librarian, either. I think they’ll be able to focus more on curating an outstanding collection, tailored to their patrons, rather than hand-holding people through the tech-adoption process. The coming generations are already intimately familiar with technology. Now we need to show them the immense value that libraries can bring to their lives. But they’re not going to drive down to a physical building to do it, and they’re not going to cart around a block of sliced wood carrying a single story or subject, when their much-smaller slate or tablet can carry literally millions of times more information. Heck, this generation even thinks e-mail is “for old people!”


              2. Perhaps I’m misreading the reply layers here, but I don’t believe I said anything about the nature of the content people want.

                Where are you getting the idea that I think libraries or e-books are only about best-sellers? I don’t believe I said it, and I certainly don’t *think* that’s the case.


      2. Are you handing them something to take home? Have a conversation with someone and nine times out of ten, they’ll forget it and do nothing.

        Go to VistaPrint and get 1000 business cards printed up for $45, listing contact e-mails for all the e-book publishers that are charging unfairly. Include the contact e-mail for your congressional representatives on it. Every time you have to say, “The publisher won’t supply/charges too much for their books and so we don’t carry them,” hand the patron one of those cards. EVERY time.

        Put a story in the local paper about it. Contact whoever in your area is the local “fair business” reporter.

        Make a stink. Get your librarian friends in other cities to do the same. Instead of abandoning e-books, why not make sure the issue gets some front-and-center time with the general public?

        Build support. Don’t run away.


  14. I read your article all the way through. Both times. Apparently there is little room for dissenting opinions here. Best of luck to you.


    1. dude i think you won the debate. well you won me over anyway. my library director is a great advocate. i shall copy your ideas to give to her. thanks!


  15. It seems to me that really don’t want to have a discussion at all. You just as t folks to see it your way. Not helpful and it really doesn’t move the discussion along one way or the other.

    As for the “complicated scenario” you paint, that is borderline ridiculous. I have a ten year old who does it weekly. Give your customers some credit, it’s not rocket science.

    Now excuse me, I have patrons to serve you might think of doing the same.


    1. Angus – Kudos to your thirteen year old, as I said when it goes well, its great, but it something goes wrong, it’s a nightmare. Unfortunately as someone who provided support and training to patrons for library ebooks I know the the scenario I painted is all too real.


  16. The problem is DMCA and what it stops us from doing in terms of fair use and the first sale doctrine. The solution is to get libraries and library organizations to use whatever muscle they can to get DMCA overturned or to get exceptions written in for fair use and first sale cases.

    And while that was very easy and simple to write, I realize that it may well be impossible, or at least very difficult, to accomplish.

    In the meantime, I agree to the extent that we should stop paying whatever publishers ask us to pay for the right to take it up the [censored]. Accepting rising costs and increased restrictions just encourages the publishers to punish us more, and we’re not creating a space from which we can negotiate.

    I’m an ePatron, though. If my public library didn’t have eBooks, they’d never see my patronage. What I’d love to see happen is some sort of coordinated rebellion; MARC records loaded for ebooks from publishers who are being unreasonable that leads to a website explaining exactly how that publisher sucks and with concise, clear instructions on how to find and download their books illegally from torrent sites.

    It’s not a perfect solution, clearly. But it would sure be nice to stick it to them, just a little bit.


    1. The problem here is not digital rights management in general. There are problems with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but they are not at the heart of the issue of libraries’ acquisition of ebooks. This is about price, access and value. The prices and access restrictions currently required of libraries who spend money on ebooks are so burdensome that they prevent the library from providing reasonable value in ebooks to its patrons and taxpayers.


      1. Michael, if publishers tried to charge libraries $140 for a print book that could be purchased on Amazon for $15, libraries have the choice to ignore the publisher and purchase the book from Amazon.

        The DMCA and the restrictions it places on how we can use the eBooks we purchase specifically stops us from doing the same thing with eBooks. If these restrictions were abolished, we could ignore high publisher prices for eBooks as well and purchase them at market price.


        1. I’ll defer to your superior knowledge of the DMCA. But I do believe the DRM restrictions that publishers put on their ebooks for libraries is intended more as a weapon against Amazon than it is to prevent patrons and libraries from making illegal copies of copyrighted works. The patrons of libraries using OverDrive do not download ebooks for their Kindles from OverDrive. They download them directly from Amazon.


  17. I’m responding more as a patron than a librarian, since I work in an academic library and these issues have not come up – other than that we got suckered by publishers into unsustainable deals and we’re trying to figure out how to fix that.

    It disturbs me that librarians think any library that doesn’t carry ebooks under current conditions is facing imminent extinction, end of story, get with the program. On what evidence is this claim based? A lot of patrons don’t have any need for ebooks. A lot of patrons who use ereaders also read books in print format. There’s a lot of evidence that a majority of people who read ebooks also read printed books. So why should we rush to satisfy those who have ereaders at the expense of those who don’t – because there isn’t going to be enough money to buy every book in every format desired.

    I’m equally a bit bothered by the idea that “customer demand” is what drives all library decisions. What do you tell a customer who demands a book after you spent your last dime on a $120 ebook? Do you think taxpayers really think it’s so important to have ebooks that we should spend three times as much on them? And, as Bobbi says, do we take the blame when publishers simply refuse to allow libraries to circulate their books?

    If academic libraries experience with out of control journal costs is anything to go on, now is the time to set terms. If you don’t now, you’ll wish you had later. Just doing it because some people want it is poor stewardship of a public resource.


  18. I agree that it’s a myth that our patrons are demanding ebooks. However, I think we can work to create a demand. I work at a relatively wealthy private school library. Most of our students have a smart phone, and many have a laptop, tablet, or iPad. I’ve purchased over 700 ebooks in the last year, and the usage is measly. However, it was the same situation with our subscription databases when I arrived at this school 4 years ago. We had a robust collection, but no one used them. Once I started educating students and teachers, the usage and demand increased. I think it needs to be the same for ebooks. Many patrons don’t know how to use them. Granted, they are more complicated than subscription databases, but more education and publicity will create demand. I guess the question is do I really want to create that demand while the industry is still in its infancy and still causes such administrative headaches.


    1. Libraries shouldn’t be spending time and money on promoting the use of e-readers and the purchase of ebooks. Let the makers of the e-readers do that. Libraries have many other, more important things to attend to.


  19. Finally somebody with some common sense. This is exactly the article that libraries and librarians need to write and read. Libraries need to start looking at services and issues that they can realistically fight for and win rather than chasing windmills. Ebooks are only one service that is offered at the library but what about recommendation engines, what about public space what about offering services to those without?


    1. and what about books that are only published in e-format? Let’s just ignore the patrons who need the library to access those shall we? While we are at it, let’s get rid of computers too because they often break down or encounter problems, so we shouldn’t focus so much time and energy on them. Let’s wait until there is a computer that never breaks down and then stock our library with those.


  20. Marc on March 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm has a good point – if libraries aren’t buying and selling and negotiating then they are out of the ‘game’ and have little to barter with. Future potential won’t mean a thing if that future date is as vague as ‘when the dust settles’ – unfortunately his claiming that brick and mortar libraries will be replaced entirely is outrageous and immoderate, ignoring some of the fundamental face to face community work that goes on (at least in public libraries).

    In any case there is no denying that ebooks are popular, and in demand. Demand is something that drives a library (@Barbara Fister) because a library should be devoted to its patrons – they are the sole reason for its existence in my opinion. Getting angry, however, and dumping all ebooks is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A better alternative is to a) continue patronage of responsible publishers who set an example for others in regards to who can claim the library’s custom and why and/or b) start looking into indie books. They come DRM free in most cases, and it’s not just vanity publishing any more – it is a viable business alternative for serious writers. Yes there is a lot of smut in the indie world, but if you bother comparing amazon e-book best seller lists, you will find that there are often a number of indie titles in the top 10 overall.

    In either case – throwing out ebooks entirely might work for some libraries where the patrons are mostly non-ebook readers, but for huge public libraries in the middle of the central business district it is not a viable option. If I take a train in to the city, the most popular item for reading is a kindle, closely followed by an ipad, and then I would be lucky to see three physical books a week. I am sick with the generalisations about ebooks – different things work best for different libraries. Don’t give me this ‘oh I work at a school library but I think that all ebook usage for public libraries is a myth’ or ‘I work at an academic library and almost everything we have is in e-format and students don’t even bother coming to the physical library – so all public libraries must be like that too’.


    1. “If libraries aren’t buying and selling and negotiating then they are out of the ‘game’ and have little to barter with.”

      I don’t’ know, boycotting has a long and proud history for being effective. Kind of like striking, but for stuff.

      “Future potential won’t mean a thing if that future date is as vague as ‘when the dust settles’”

      Not too sure if there will be a specific day, but we can guess things will settle in a few years, I’ll guess four if it helps. We’ll come back to the post and four years, and if the zombie apocalypse hasn’t come we’ll see if I was right.

      “Getting angry, however, and dumping all ebooks is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A better alternative is to a) continue patronage of responsible publishers who set an example for others in regards to who can claim the library’s custom and why and/or b) start looking into indie books. They come DRM free in most cases, and it’s not just vanity publishing any more – it is a viable business alternative for serious writers. Yes there is a lot of smut in the indie world, but if you bother comparing amazon e-book best seller lists, you will find that there are often a number of indie titles in the top 10 overall.”

      Getting angry is fair when you are getting ripped off, I say. If OverDrive offered some nice packages, that is moving in the right direction. But it doesn’t take care of “the process” and “the mess” describe above…and one person’s smut is another’s treasure, never speak ill of the smut!

      “In either case – throwing out ebooks entirely might work for some libraries where the patrons are mostly non-ebook readers, but for huge public libraries in the middle of the central business district it is not a viable option. If I take a train in to the city, the most popular item for reading is a kindle, closely followed by an ipad, and then I would be lucky to see three physical books a week. “

      I do not know if those people are reading books on those devices nor if those books are from a library, purchased, have been lent, or stolen. However, if a person wants to read a book on a train and they cannot get it in an eBook, I’m guessing if they want to read it they will read it in paper form.
      There is no eBook mob that will break the legs of a librarian for not having eBooks in the library. Nor will libraries be closed down for not having eBooks. Ergo and thusly, it is an option.

      “I am sick with the generalizations about eBooks – different things work best for different libraries.”

      If different things work best for different libraries, that should include not getting eBooks.

      “Don’t give me this ‘oh I work at a school library but I think that all ebook usage for public libraries is a myth’ or ‘I work at an academic library and almost everything we have is in e-format and students don’t even bother coming to the physical library – so all public libraries must be like that too’.”

      I promise I won’t give you…what you said…I didn’t even cross my toes and I so wanted too….


    2. Libraries shouldn’t abandon ebooks. They should stop spending money on ebooks until publishers offer affordable prices and reasonable access. There are many sources of free or inexpensive ebooks for libraries. And I think it’s reasonable to presume that anyone who owns an e-reader can afford to buy ebooks for it and, therefore, is not likely to rely on a library for ebooks anyway.


      1. “And I think it’s reasonable to presume that anyone who owns an e-reader can afford to buy ebooks for it and, therefore, is not likely to rely on a library for ebooks anyway.”

        Fair enough.

        Say just for the fun of it, eBooks are free for libraries. We still end up playing tech support for OverDrive and lord know what other device that some crazed IT sadist created.

        It is a pain to get a frustrated patron on the phone when you don’t know if the issue is with the home computer if they have to use one, or if the issue is with OverDrive or the device of which there are many.

        If the eReaders & OverDrive (or whoever) had some strong support that would be a real help. As of now libraries are subsidizing their tech support because we tend to be the first point of contact, understandably so .

        For the record, no librarian I’ve heard of is anti-ebook, we are just ain’t getting…treated badly.


        1. I struggle with libraries’ giving free instruction and tech support to e-reader vendors. It’s one thing to teach a patron to use a computer so he/she can access the Internet. It’s another, I think, to teach a library patron how to use a Kindle so the patron can *go to* in order to borrow a library’s ebook for the Kindle.


  21. Great post and great comments. What Bobbie points out implicitly is that we all have limited resources to invest and that current market conditions make the investment required to keep even somewhat current in the e-book market takes a large and perhaps disproportionate part of our budgets. I do truly believe that teh trend toward e-reading will continue but I wonder if market dynamics could make it easier or more difficult to participate in the future.
    While I hope that best sellers (print and electronic) will be a mainstay of public library services forever, public libraries have differential advantage when they combine non-commercial access to information with trust, information literacy, customer service and a community to help people change their lives.
    Quoting Carol Adams from Virginia, “Information is abundant; time is scarce and attention is even more scarce” and S. R. Ranganathan “Save the time of the reader.” Libraries do so much more than e-Books to meet people at “point of need” with information resources that help them figure out What’s Next?! in their lives.


  22. E-books are nice, but they are a luxury. My local library is closed on Fridays and open 2-5 on Sundays. As a patron, given the choice I would much prefer longer hours on Sundays to more e-books.

    Bu there is also no reason that libraries can’t act as a gateway to all the free e-books that are already online. Open Library boasts access to over 1,000,000 free e-books, but your average library patron would never know this! It’s your library’s job to connect people with books, but they only seem to want to do it when they have to pay for it. E-books included. This is weird to me.


    1. Christopher, you make an excellent point. Libraries shouldn’t stop offering ebooks to patrons. They should simply stop spending money on ebooks, at least for a while. Open Library is just one of a number of ebook sources under-utilized and under-promoted by libraries.


    2. Christopher – One of the problems with those free ebooks is they are generally not the books that patrons want. They are older books that are in the public domain, and yes some people do read them, but the bulk of the demand is for new titles.


      1. The bulk of the demand is for new titles, yes, but the discussion here appears to be between giving in to the publishers on the one hand and abandoning ebooks altogether. I have no idea how much my library pays for “Pride and Prejudice” through Overdrive, or the complete works of Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. But they only offer one or two copies at a time and the books must be returned within 21 days. This when Amazon hands out Kindle versions of these books for free! Why does Amazon hand out unlimited copies for free? Because it’s a cheap and effective way to train people to choose Amazon for books. Why do libraries offer one temporary copy to a city with a population of 500,000? I have no clue.

        Here is what makes sense to me:

        1. Libraries offer free, curated versions of ebooks.
        2. Libraries work with local schools to bundle these ebooks however they please, so that students can download personalized collections of classic works at once.
        3. ALA gets its act together and lobbies Congress to (for example) force publishers to deposit public copies of ebooks at the Library of Congress. You could even make it so that for X number of copies sold, the publisher has to deposit an extra copy of the ebook. Then the local libraries put links on their sites encouraging users to buy copies of the ebooks that they want to keep. The more ebooks sold, the more copies available to libraries.

        That last one is just an example, but there’s no reason that libraries and publishers have to be at odds, and there’s no reason why libraries can’t work with what’s available, rather than endless hand-wringing over what they can’t control.


        1. Best post on the whole thread. Some genuine ideas towards *solving* the issues instead of simply burying heads in sand and pretending that e-books are some kind of fad.

          Well said, sir!


  23. I am a library consultant and trainer; have spent 30+ years traveling around the country working with libraries of all types and sizes, and in all kinds of communities. During this time, my husband had a career as a software designer and systems analyst; we worked with and for some big tech companies, so I got to peek behind the curtain regarding how technology is designed and sold. Finally, I have been involved in the publishing world since the early 70s, as an author, publisher, reviewer, editor, and marketing specialist. I know a little about all three worlds. My two cents:

    1. I believe the mission of a library should be the better future of the people they serve. Every community and institution is different. Most are in crisis. For most of them, e-books might not be a top priority. So should they be so important to libraries? I have participated in many strategic planning sessions; technology is a tool, not a goal.

    2. The library market, by business standards, is not a big or wealthy market, and not one that necessarily attracts the biggest players. And, with respect to my colleagues in libraries, libraries are not at the cutting edge when it comes to technology. If libraries were better at collaborating around technology as one united national industry, they would have created a uniform national interlibrary loan system by now, invented the smart phone and tablet, and produced hundreds of apps to drive libraries into the hands of their users. I believe library folk might not be as influential as is needed to radically change the direction of e-book evolution.

    3. And what we know as e-books today will be something different tomorrow. It is really expensive to keep up with a technology during its most innovative periods..

    4. Book publishers are not necessarily evil or greedy. Most are trying to figure out how to stay in business. For publishers, for the tablet makers, the software designers, the authors, the bookstores, and the readers , the world is shifting, with no end in sight.

    5. Not all customers are the right customers. For decades, I have watched libraries stress staff and budgets trying to please customers; even now, many are ill-equipped to deal with even moderate customer demands.

    So, I agree with Bobbi that a judicious pause might be in order.


      1. Thanks, Michael. I think all professions benefit from inviting those outside perspectives. We have a motto – Everyone is too close to their own stuff. I have a fantasy of creating Rotary-Club-like publishing circles with one person from each sector, to learn from each other.


    1. Hi Pat – I’m a technologist who has taken a great interest in the library industry and couldn’t agree more with your assessments. I’ve been trying to push the idea of a National Public Library Corporation (similar to PBS and NPR) to focus on the things you listed. This would provide first-rate technology tools to member libraries and free them up to better meet the demands of their local constituents.


  24. Excellent post. But this is not a new perspective. Some of us have been saying the same thing for months and months. It is very hard to have an inclusive debate about this issue in the blogosphere where only some voices are heard. I don’t know how to solve that problem any more than I know how to solve the ebook problem. But I do think this issue will be decided at the local level based on individual library needs and goals. I’m not saying that is the best way, but my experience has shown me that many (most?) libraries/librarians are focused on their own communities rather than the bigger picture.


    1. Thanks Bonnie. I might add that I remember conversations about these issues 15 years ago, and more. I remember a presentation at the Arizona Library Association in 1997, discussing mobile technology, and a library leadership institute in Colorado in 1994, where we talked about nanotechnology and the implications of carrying the complete works in the Library of Congress in a object the size of a pen. I agree that libraries will be figuring out what is best for them, at least I hope so.


  25. Great article and conversation. From my perspective as publisher at Dzanc Books, having our books available in ebook form through the libraries is a given. The “slim pickins” issue is resolved somewhat by Dzanc being able to offer over 300 ebooks through our rEprint and new book series. As for how libraries can achieve providing ebooks to its people, having looked at 100 different models and working with all the libraries across the country, the best solution in my mind is a patron driven system and for the libraries to work directly with the publisher, allow the publisher to help get the books to the patrons by way of the library and thus removing the need of the library to have its own server or use a middleman distributor. Short answer to a complex question but Dzanc is working hard to partner with libraries and find a viable way to resolve this issue. Feel free to contact me at


    1. Steven,

      I’m closer to the publishing end of things as well – owner of a studio that designs and builds books – and I’m curious about something.

      As was mentioned elsewhere in the thread, the new paradigms of book publishing are proving to be huge challenges for publishers as well – my own publishing clients speak of it frequently.

      It strikes me that there is an opportunity here for libraries and publishers to help each other out. Allow publishers to include a promotinal page in the e-book, hyperlinking directly to sales pages on their site or on a distributor’s site such as Amazon or B&N. Perhaps on the first page after the cover image. Most e-readers today have some kind of web-browsing capability, so this seems like a great way for publishers to use the library copies to connect to paying customers that are already vetted as relatively passionate “readers”.

      This might provide enough value to publishers that they start to see e-books provided to libraries as something that *drives* sales, rather than as “lost sales”. In that light, it becomes in the interest of the publisher to provide libraries with as many copies of their ebooks as possible, as inexpensively as possible.

      What are your thoughts on this?


      1. I’m not Steven but I did want to say regarding the enclosed hyperlink idea that you’ll have to consider the conflicts of interest involved. Currently, Apple, Amazon and B&N don’t permit hyperlinks inside ebooks to competing vendors. Apple especially. You’d have to create separate ebooks for each vendor and update them as contracts expire or you’d have dead links. And you’d have to work out what to do when the publisher no longer has the contractual rights to the ebook.


        1. All true. But these are *contractual* issues, and we’ve managed to live with “Other books by this author” pages for decades. One doesn’t burn all the extant paper copies of a book from another publisher, just because some other publisher purchased the rights to it. I have a feeling that exclusionary contracts on hyperlinks is something that’s going to be resolved in the upcoming congressional hearings.

          And even assuming that the contractual issues can’t be resolved (doubtful), creating a separate file for each vendor with a single different page is childsplay. A matter of a few minutes, to cover all the majors. I build books for a living – I’ve done it.

          Short work, also, for a publisher to create a permanent landing page on their site that never changes for such links, which then redirects to whatever is their current distribution system. Again, have done that myself. And, ultimately, it’s the publisher’s problem if such a promotional link breaks, not the library’s.


      2. since i have a Kindle i always have the option to buy a book i borrow from the library. when a library book expires and you return it to the library, you then have the option to delete it from your device/Amazon account or buy it and download it again. i just assumed every ereader device had that option. the nook should have this option since B&N made it. and the corresponding apps have the same option.


    2. Steven
      I am going to pass your information along to some people I think might be interested.

      There are several issues with this type of system, the main concern being that each publisher will have it’s own separate system for ebooks requiring libraries to have multiple “catalogs” for ebooks.


  26. In an efficient and well oiled system libraries will not have to pay a dime out of pocket for ebooks. This of course depends on forward looking publishers as well but truly if the industry – libraries and publishers – would just open their eyes there is a very simple solution to the issue of ebook lending that can also prove financially beneficial to each the publisher, the libraries and the authors.


  27. Did you see Wall Street Journal report ( that the Department of Justice has plans to sue Apple for allegedly colluding to fix the prices of e-books?

    The five publishers under scrutiny for working with Apple in this way [agency model] include Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, the Penguin Group, Macmillan, and HarperCollins.

    As a reminder the publishers that Bobbi noted in her post that won’t let libraries lend eBooks are: Simon and Schuster or MacMillian or new books from Penguin or Hatchet, and not more than 26 times from HarperCollins.

    Hmm…. Think there is a connection?


  28. Thanks Bobbi. Indeed there are issues but, as noted, and not to ramble, the key is to work together. To recognize the playing field has totally changed and if libraries are to survive – which they must in mortar and brick and otherwise! – that have to be visionary and look at how to provide ebooks in an efficient and fiscally prudent manner. This requires partnerships with publishers and publishers coming together so there is a limited number of servers and formats in play. This is only possible through cooperation and I believe it is doable. If not, seriously, amazon will take everything over. The key is to recognize what must be done – a united front, a singular server, a partnering between publisher and library and not this avarice approach some publishers are intent on taking with a cash grab myopia and on the other side with libraries not knowing which way to turn. There is only one way to turn – on that there is no question – to ebooks. Ebooks arent the future, they are the present. To not understand this transcends naivete and fear it is to seal the fate of libraries forever. Come into the light, grasshopper, it is warm.


  29. The percentage of library patrons who read e-books is 16%. The readers who read e-books also read print books interchangeably most of the time. This came out of this presentation as an argument to publishers that the library market is valuable to publishers by Barbara Genco at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference.

    Quite frankly, the big six are not the reason to get e-books. One of the primary reasons to get e-books is the massive amount of classics that are available for free as e-books. Also there are extensive new formats for books, especially short form nonfiction.

    The point is not to focus on the big six and what you can already easily get as a hardcover book, but instead to get enhanced e-book material with video and audio and other formats which are not readily available as print books.

    A pure focus on giant publishing houses as the primary reason to get e-books is misleading. There is a lot of material by other publishers that is as good or better than a stream of bestselling fiction.


    1. Excellent point. The goal should be to deliver value to the patrons, which libraries cannot do by spending too much on ebooks. But you’re right in saying there are great ebooks to be obtained for free or for reasonable prices. Allowing popular demand alone to disproportionately influence collection development is a slippery slope to a place where libraries don’t belong.

      This is probably a different thread, but I’ve seen Barbara Genco’s TOC presentation and still I doubt libraries will be able to convince a Big 6 publisher that it gets significantly more business because its customers also happen to be library patrons. If libraries want to be seen as a business factor in the book market — which I’m not sure is a good idea — they need to buy books of all kinds in much larger consortia than they do today.


  30. As a library director currently researching the possibility of purchasing an e-book service, the main issues for me are: a)the most often used e-book service provider (you know who you are) will not let you keep your content should you decide to switch to another provider. This essentially “hooks” a library into staying with that company, even if the rates increase, for fear of losing many thousands of dollars of their e-books investment. b) the up and coming e-books service providers are still unable to offer access to Nook and Kindle e-books…..c) the e-book service providers are at the mercy of the publishers, who seem determined to continue to change their policies regarding life cycle usage of an e-book, rates, and/or avaiability of new and best sellers for libraries to “purchase”.
    For my library region, I’m going to wait until after the summer and see where the “electronic” chips fall before I decide on a provider….if I even do it at all.


  31. One thing librarians can be doing now, as publishers sort it all out, is encouraging people to read the enormous number of free e-books that are widely available. I got obsessed with finding great books and eventually built myself a meta-search engine that searches just for free e-books:

    Aunt Lee’s Obsessive Meta Search Engine for Free E-Books –

    I put up some tutorials on that site that explain how to set up a digital e-library of free e-books — anyone with fair to middling tech skills should be able to set the whole thing up.


    1. love, LOVE, the free ebooks. i have over 100. when i will read them all no idea, but as a book junkie it sure is lees space than if i bought them.


  32. 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.


    1. 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.


  33. “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.


  34. 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.


  35. 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.


  36. 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.


    1. 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.


  37. 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?


  38. 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!


    1. 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.


  39. 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.


  40. 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?


    1. 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.


      1. 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.


  41. 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.


  42. 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.


  43. 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.


  44. Pingback: ARL Policy Notes

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