It’s rare to see informed journalism about libraries and ebooks. Most news articles I see are along the lines of “Libraries are now lending ebooks,” with a brief report of a few libraries that are now, in fact, lending ebooks. That’s neither informative or particularly new.
Thus, it’s nice to see a couple of recent articles from Forbes discussing the issue. It’s hard for me to read those articles and wonder why the heck libraries are still bending over backwards to lend ebooks.
The first article is about the overwhelming dominance of Overdrive in the public library ebook market, and boy is it overwhelming. “In terms of market share, OverDrive says that they serve over 90% of the 16,400 US public libraries, with a 99% renewal rate in that segment.”
That’s kind of a stunning figure if you think about it. Over 90% of public libraries use Overdrive, and probably only Overdrive, to supply ebooks. All it would take is an overdrive for bigger profits to cause serious problems to libraries from the lack of competition.
A new Baker & Taylor enterprise and the 3M Cloud Library are hoping to compete, but it’s pretty hard to compete when that many libraries are already locked into a system. The savings or offerings of new services would have to be substantially better than Overdrive to justify the expense and annoyance of moving platforms. All Overdrive has to do is wait for them to fail before raising prices very much.
It would have to be the savings, because it almost certainly wouldn’t be increase offerings. The article headline is revealing: “You’ll Need a PhD To Make Sense Of The Pricing Schemes Publishers Impose On Libraries.”
Overdrive doesn’t want you to need a PhD. They just want librarians to let them worry about all the sordid details of the pricing schemes publishers are foisting on libraries. Don’t worry your pretty little head about paying exorbitant prices for heavily restricted digital content.
True, lots of people want ebooks from libraries, but it seems that ebooks are still a tiny percentage of the circulation. Although there might be “explosive growth…by as much as 100% in the last year,” the size of the explosion seems smaller when you find examples the NYPL, where 4.7% of the circulation was ebooks.
That’s a smaller percentage than purchases of ebooks compared to print books, but even that percentage isn’t huge. While a boosterish NYT article about an AAP report boasted that ebook sales were “a boon to publishers in 2012,” a more careful CSM article about the same report noted that a 47% increase in growth was actually a slowdown, and that ebooks still account for only 20% of book sales.
Print, it seems, is not dead.
Library circulation of ebooks would perhaps go up dramatically if it wasn’t unnecessarily parallel to print circulation, but that’s one of the challenges to libraries, who can’t afford to spend the sometimes several hundred percent markup of the ebook for library use while still having restricted access.
Perhaps that will work itself out over time, but I doubt it. If ebooks ever finally do become the norm and print books are much less available, it’s likely libraries will be spending more money on significantly fewer books.
Seems like a ripoff.
One library system in Ohio has decided to ask for legal help, although the move strikes me as naive. Its board voted to ask their Congressional representatives to “ensure public access to e-book materials through public libraries.” It’s a touching if pointless gesture.
Their argue that publishers won’t sell them ebooks, and that even when they do the price markup is “exorbitant.” The problem? “The resolution notes these restrictions limits information to ‘only those who can afford to purchase it.’”
Something tells me that won’t bother enough members of the current Congress to get anything done. First, that would require that enough members care that people don’t have access to public goods unless they can pay for them individually. Second, it assumes they care about “maintaining an informed citizenry.” Seems unlikely.
Finally, it assumes the current Congress effectively makes laws anymore.
My prediction: no legal help at all. Libraries are in the business of providing access to books for everyone. Publishers definitely aren’t in that business, and now that they can restrict library access to books they’re doing it. This clash of values could cause grief for libraries for a long time to come.