February 16, 2018

“Friction” and Progress: ALA Pushes the Big Six Ebook Holdouts | Editorial

It’s about time, but libraries are finally at the table with two of the Big Six publisher holdouts on library ebook lending—Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. On February 8, American Library Association (ALA) president Molly Raphael, who has been pushing the ALA ebook agenda, wrote a brief post giving some details of the conversations she, ALA executive director Keith Fiels, and others had with CEOs, division presidents, and other higher ups at these houses. They also met with executives at Random, Perseus, and Penguin (Random and Perseus sell both frontlist and backlist titles to libraries; Penguin has just pulled out of OverDrive).

While nothing has been settled, the meetings provide some optimism: there was a lot of air-clearing, expression of mutual appreciation, and elimination of misconceptions. (See LJ’s stories at ow.ly/9w9G2 and ow.ly/9wamo). As Raphael wrote in her post, “[W]e—publishers, libraries, intermediaries, and others—operate in an ecosystem that is experiencing profound change…. [T]here is nothing like direct communication….” She seemed confident that those lines of communication would remain open and planned to extend such meetings to other publishers and ebook intermediaries, i.e., wholesalers like OverDrive, Ingram, and 3M, that play an “influential role.”

At a meeting at Random House in January, LJ heard some of the same concerns Raphael and company heard. One was that anyone, anywhere, can download freely from any library website, thus making ebooks “available virtually worldwide without restriction,” Raphael noted. Another was libraries’ role as engines of discovery. “[H]ow best to provide and promote ebooks to library patrons,” Raphael said, remains a priority for the ALA group and publishers to work on together.

Implicit in that is not just discovery but the library role in the sales chain. If borrowing becomes “frictionless” with ­ebooks—no trips to pick up or return books—as Macmillan’s Alison Lazarus put it, “we want to insure that customers who have typically been books buyers do not migrate their purchasing into borrowing.”

But most publishers see libraries only as institutional buyers in the print world, not as channels for consumer sales, contrary to what LJ found in its Patron Profiles series (www.­thedigitalshift.com). That research confirms that Power Patrons, the 20 percent of library patrons who use the library weekly, not only read and borrow more books than other library users, but 37 percent of them say they’ve bought a book previously borrowed from the library; 67 percent have bought a book by an author they’ve discovered in the library. These Power Patrons are also more avid users of the library’s digital content and of social media.

In fact, in contrast to what Lazarus fears, the ebook world may open up a new outlet for publisher sales, as evidenced at Douglas County Libraries, CO, where a buy button on the library website enables consumers to purchase ebooks that are already checked out. Given the long hold lines for ebooks and the strains on library book budgets, some companies are banking on that ease. OverDrive has launched its WIN (Want It Now) catalog, which exposes a library’s users to a publisher’s entire list, not just to what the library has purchased. Library users can opt to request that their library buys the book, or click on a button and purchase it themselves from a handful of online booksellers, including indies. OverDrive gets a cut of the sale, and the fee is credited to the library’s OverDrive account. (The details are still unclear, but the company said it would be informing its clients shortly.)

Philosophically, many libraries can live with the buy button, and given library survival in an ebook world, that’s probably the correct tack. Nevertheless, it distorts the free and equal access premise, creating challenges for librarians as they try to balance pragmatism with principle.

In all this ferment, Random House, while reaffirming its commitment to library lending, announced that, effective March 1, it would raise its ebook prices to wholesalers, who in turn set their own markups to libraries. It’s just another sign that the ebook ecosystem will continue to be wild and woolly as publishers try to find the right pricing and access models for libraries and protect their businesses. ALA pushed into the conversation just in time.

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.

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  1. Charlie Parker says:

    Excellent summary and synthesis of the ongoing conversation! This can only help move the discussion forward and closer to resolution!

  2. Nettie Lagace says:

    Can you please double-check the ow.ly link above? the one you have here goes to an “Interiors by Studio M” article, not an LJ story. Thanks.

    • Link corrected and another has been added reporting on ALA executives meetings with publishers. Given the rise in Random House ebook prices, I may have been overly optimistic. I still think it’s better to be in the conversation than not.

  3. This is a very well researched and written article. Thanks for the information!

  4. MiketheLibrarian says:

    Honestly, if we don’t know each other’s points of view by now, neither side is listening. The publishers have made it clear that they are afraid that lending ebooks will curtail buying. If they don’t have or have access to stats that prove otherwise, something is wrong with their reporting. The libraries have made it clear that they want to be able to afford to lend; easy enough to point to our stats on lending and our shrinking budgets. I like Molly and voted for her, but this is just window dressing.