February 17, 2018

TOC 2011: Lending Panel Explores Library-Publisher Détente

A panel yesterday at the O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference led by LJ‘s Heather McCormack aimed to dispel some preconceived notions about libraries that have hindered the sale of ebooks to them, as well as to move beyond an us vs. them mentality. The panel was titled, “Solving the Digital Loan Problem: Can Library Lending of eBooks be a Win-Win for Publishers AND Libraries?

Lending and frustration

Librarian Katie Dunneback of East Central Library Services (@younglibrarian on Twitter) gave a primer on the library mechanisms purpose-built to move books.

Dunneback described libraries as discovery centers where patrons go to “experiment with new-to-them categories.” They represent a low-risk investment for users, but one that can offer returns later in terms of increased usage of library materials and increased sales for publishers as patrons are turned on to new materials and format. Likewise, said Dunneback, librarians perform the equivalent of hand-selling books and authors to new readers, and often talk up the backlist titles they keep in their collections.

However, patrons and librarians alike are frustrated when collections are limited by spotty ebook availability, she said. Pointing to more of a lost opportunity than a lost sale or circulation, librarians are occasionally forced to tell patrons they can’t offer a fitting readalike because it has not been made available for libraries to license. According to Dunneback, patrons say, “I want something that you can give me now.” She’s forced to exclude lots of potential options that may be of interest to a reader, and that includes many e-originals. As an example, she cited Shannon Stacey’s Exclusively Yours from Carina Press, which she would have liked to recommend to a patron but couldn’t since her library hadn’t been able to acquire the title.

Meanwhile, interlibrary loan (ILL) is not an option even when titles are available elsewhere, Dunneback said, given that current license restrictions forbid ILL for public library ebooks.

Streamlining the lending process

Then, the panel waded into “the proverbial bleep,” as McCormack put it, pressing on the issue of less onerous Digital Rights Management (DRM) software for library titles.

Asked if Random House has any plans to push for a more simplified encryption technology, Ruth Liebmann, VP, Director, Account Marketing, likened current DRM hardships to similar issues of connectivity 15 years ago. “The technology advances, and it gets better quickly,” she said, adding that Random wants an equally smooth user experience for all of its readers.

After Dunneback demonstrated the some two dozen steps required to download an ebook and transfer it to a device, Micah Bowers of Bluefire Productions admitted that he was familiar with the issue, having worked on the interface for Adobe’s Digital Editions software. “Where it stands today is not the best, I’d love it to be better,” he said. However, he pointed to the new crop of lending-enabled mobile apps such as his own Bluefire reader and the iPad app from OverDrive released on Tuesday as steps in the right direction. Bowers echoed Liebmann’s sentiment that the interfaces will inevitably get better, adding, “we’d [Bluefire] love to make it easier for people to download direct to devices.”

For Bluefire, Bowers is working on an environment where lending and retail models are integrated into a single interface. “There are so many opportunities for this to be beneficial to the whole industry,” he said.

A lasting peace?

During the Q&A, one audience member asked what is perhaps the essential question for many publishers: “If the steps become fewer, and it becomes as easy to download [a library ebook] from your living room as to download a Kindle book, is that the potential for a lost ebook sale?”

Liebmann fielded the question, saying that the current strategy at Random promoted equal opportunity: “We want to get our books out there. If they’re available at an etailer, they’re available to libraries.”

However, she was also careful to limit the scope of her response. “What is [the marketplace] going to look like in three, four, five years? I honestly don’t know,” she said.

That ending note dovetailed almost perfectly with a line from McCormack’s introduction, describing “an air of détente in library-publisher relations.” Likewise, in the spirit of negotiation and understanding, Liebmann added that all publishers should consider joining librarians at the American Library Association Annual Conference, to be held this year in New Orleans June 23-28.

Josh Hadro About Josh Hadro

Josh Hadro (@hadro on Twitter) is the former Executive Editor of Library Journal.