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Ebooks Skyrocketing! At Least for Now

ALA Midwinter is winding down. I didn’t write about it last week because it looked like it would be pretty boring. The what’s happening page had a long list of speakers, most of which I’d never heard of but didn’t think I’d want to see, plus some others I knew enough about to deliberately avoid.

On the other hand, Dallas in January is a lot better than Boston or Philadelphia in January, and as conference cities go it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. The weather was pleasant. Nobody in Dallas walks anywhere, so the sidewalks weren’t crowded, though I wouldn’t call the place pedestrian friendly by any means. There were no restaurants to speak of near the convention center, but then again the attendance was only about 4,000, so it didn’t matter much that the only convenient food was the convention center swill.

As conference cities in Texas go, Dallas is a lot like San Antonio, minus the charm. And the restaurants and pedestrian friendly atmosphere.

Which brings me to the news that Overdrive was playing up their ebook circulation statistics at Midwinter. You can read the basics from their press release: eBook Discovery and Sampling Skyrocketing at Public Libraries. Skyrocketing!

The statistics are impressive, too. Supposedly, there were:

  • 1.6 billion book and title catalog pages viewed, up 130% from 20109
  • 9.5 million visitor sessions, up 107%
  • 35 million digital titles checked out in 2011, with 17 million holds

I’m a little surprised by the last figure, since it seems like every ebook available through my public library has 20 holds on it at any given time. I would have thought 35 million checkouts meant at least 100 million holds.

But then I realized Overdrive says that 35 million “digital titles” were checked out, but their digital titles include far more than ebooks. According to the press release: “The OverDrive catalog for libraries now includes 700,000 copyrighted eBook, audiobook, music, and video titles in 52 languages, including 300,000 titles added in 2011.”

That would explain why there were more checkouts than holds.

They may have added 300,000 “titles” in 2011, but the number of ebooks added must have been a small percentage of that, and growing smaller now that Penguin is going to stop making ebooks (and now audiobooks!) available to libraries.

As we see from this article, what ebooks get checked out the most from libraries are what ebooks are available for checkout, which at the moment includes only 2 of the Big 6 publishers. The most popular new books from libraries are all from Random House. All it would take is for Random House and HarperCollins to go the way of Simon & Schuster and all would be lost.

Unless, that is, there is a positive correlation between having an ebook available for library lending and increased sales of either that work or works by the same author. The press release implies something like that with the phrase “discovery and sampling.” We know anecdotally that people use libraries to discover authors they then sometimes purchase, but can that be proven?

Publishers fear that an ebook borrowed from a library is a sale lost. It’s an old fear, but it’s not one that I’ve seen any evidence for.

If some industrious LIS researcher needs a research project, either disproving that a book borrowed is a sale lost or proving a positive correlation between library ebook availability and increase sales of that ebook or author would seem perfect. You could probably even get a grant.

And if the research shows the opposite, it can just be suppressed like other LIS research that doesn’t go well for libraries. (A study on school librarians someone wrote me about comes to mind, but I couldn’t verify the suppression.)

Between studies showing good things come to those publishers who like libraries and my previous suggestion to have library patrons start contacting publishers directly to complain about their hating libraries, publishers might come around.

Or maybe not, and my predictions for the year will come true.



  1. Authors will just want Amazon like money for each circ- or European type money for every circ- and libraries will dump them.

    Ebook issue solved. ;)

  2. Plus, Overdrive adds hundres of titles every day, but most of them aren’t the popular fiction and/or narrative nonfiction that people want. There’s a lot of dreck.

  3. The Librarian With no Name says:

    We’ve got some data that might support a link between the free availability of ebooks and book sales, but it might not be the sort of data we want.

    Eric Flint’s 1632 novels show a remarkably stable and increasing rate of quarterly sales, which is atypical for a ten-year-old science fiction series. Flint is also the spearhead of the Baen Free Library, which provides a handful of free ebooks with no DRM or strings attached.

    The problem from a library’s perspective is that the ebooks in the Baen Free Library are almost all the first and maybe second books in ongoing series. They’re provided for free with the confident expectation that many of the people who read them will purchase other books in the series to see how the story turns out.

    So while it’s probable that major publishers will eventually stumble upon the Baen Free Library example, they’re likely to fixate on the potential of ebooks as free samples to increase interest in books they can actually charge for.

    As standoffish as publishers are being on the question of libraries in ebooks, it doesn’t seem at all unlikely that at least one or two of them will try the strategy of selling ebooks to libraries, but only the first books in the series they hope they can sell.

    Other than that, I think the numbers are going to remain seriously mushy. Media distributors have a rose-tinted dedication to theoretical lost sales that make Miss Havisham look like a model of coping skills and dispassionate perspective.

  4. librarEwoman says:

    Another factor in the question of whether having an eBook available through libraries will decrease or increase sales for that eBook is that not everyone has the money to purchase their own copy. It’s not that they would purchase it if it weren’t available at the library; it’s just that they don’t have the money to purchase it, plain and simple. So, by selling their eBooks to libraries, publishers aren’t losing sales from low income and medium-low income folks. They are, however, gaining sales from libraries, who need to purchase multiple copies of many eBook titles in order to serve those low and medium-low income folks. People who are wealthy enough to purchase their own eBooks will continue to do so, just for the convenience factor. It’s so much easier to purchase an eBook than to wait for it, and to deal with all of the DRM software in the download process. Purchasing an eBook usually takes just a single click of a button on your eReader. Borrowing a library eBook often involves getting onto a PC, downloading the book onto the PC using often confusing DRM software, and then transferring the eBook via a USB cable to your eReader. That’s a lot of incentive for people who have extra money to purchase eBooks instead of borrowing them. Surely publishers know this.

    • Let’s not pretend that there’s this mass of low income people with kindles that can’t afford to buy books for it.

      There might be a small population of these people, but MOST ebook readers are predominently college grads with HH income of $50k+. The gate of the reader is enough to keep lower socioeconomically inclined patrons away.

      The real question might be- why are these readers still expensive and why aren’t libraries focussing more on this than catering to the affluent patrons who can afford new tech on their own?

      That’s not MY question, but it is THE question.

    • TechservingYou says:

      Spencer hit the nail on the head, raising a question I have raised in my own library. I’ve got a number of incredibly demanding patrons criticizing the (small) library for not yet having Overdrive…afterall, their hard-earned tax dollars pay for the library, and these are tax dollars no one in town can afford because they’re barely scraping by and are just trying to keep their homes. Yet, apparently everyone in town also owns a Kindle and is therefore in great need of free ebooks. Um, hello… doesn’t quite add up. What I’ve got is a bunch of entitled cheapskates. The people in town who genuinely can’t afford to pay for the library are not the ones who are in need of free ebooks. (And by the way, give the Kindle owners Overdrive, and they complain about how long the waiting list is for any popular fiction.)

      I’m frankly surprised at the number of people I have encountered who refuse to buy ebooks. I bought my Kindle fully expecting to buy the ebooks too.

  5. librarEwoman says:

    There may not be a “huge mass” of low income people with eReaders who can’t afford the eBooks for them; but there are some low to lower middle income people in this situation. The number of them will most likely continue to grow as eReading becomes more popular. There have always been plenty of low to middle-low income people who have DVD players but can’t afford to purchase their own DVDs. That is why they come to the library and wait days or weeks to check out DVDs. There have also always been people who enjoy reading, but can’t afford to purchase their own print books. That’s why they come to libraries and endure the wait of of having to put new titles on hold. Ironically, many public librarians fall into the category of people who are buying eReaders without having enough money to purchase their own eBooks. While I can find the money for the expense of purchasing an eReader, I don’t make enough money as a public librarian to absorb the expense of purchasing my own eBooks. I don’t even purchase print books the vast majority of the time. My income just isn’t high enough to support that while also paying all of the bills. From interacting with the patrons I see at the library on a daily basis, I know I’m not the only one in this boat. There is a population of people out there who read voraciously, can afford the expense of an eReader, but can’t afford the continued expense of purchasing eBooks. Also, eReaders really aren’t that costly, as far as electronic devices go. $79 for a basic eInk reader isn’t bad, and I’m sure that price will continue to drop.

    • If you can’t afford the ebooks, then WHY IN THE HECK would you buy the ereader?

      That would be like buying a XBOX 360 when you know you’ll not be able to buy any games. What on earth would convince someone they needed the hardware if they can’t afford the software that makes it work?!?!

      To further the anaolgy, it would be like buying an XBOX 360 when you know you can’t afford the games, and THERE’S A FREE ARCADE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD! Libraries already have print versions of most- if not all- of the ebook titles they offer, right? So, these voracious readers could get in the waiting line for those, right? Its not like there’s this land of books that only show up for ereaders (well, there is, but not so much at libraries).

      Even allowing these people exist- and they do- they ARE NOT the majority of users- as the data shows. In fact, I would say that libraries offering e-books might be the #1 reason why some of these people got these devices in the first place. This means that they are not a market we needed to serve and brought service too- we actually spurred them into spending money for a device their finances show they shouldn’t have purchased in the first place.

      Now, I’ll wait while you discuss how they won them or got them as Christmas gifts…

      Then I’ll point out that these people are a minority of the minority and we are focussing way too much of our time and money providing a service they don’t really need.

    • I could easily argue that it’s the majority of users that want only free books got them as a gift for the holidays. I can’t count the number of grandparents and older adults that received them as gifts from their kids who set them up for them and then sent them on their way. A lot of these individuals I’ve helped seem like they’ve never seen an electronic device in their entire lives.

    • anonymous says:

      Hey Spencer,

      You got the part where you can read proprietary ebooks, even those from Amazon/Kindle and B&N Nook, on any device including 10 year old WinXPs and old Macs via free downloadable apps and software, right? That is, if you can borrow them. Which for the vast majority of titles, you can’t. But access isn’t limited to high dollar readers and tablets.

    • Yes. You CAN read them on a computer. That’s true. You can also read print books in the closet, or anywhere else you take it without having to buy an enabling device.

      Ebooks take up less space and they make libraries look “cutting edge”. They account for minimal circulation when compared to print titles and the people who read them typically are more affluent and educated than most.

      However, if libraries wanted to start loaning ereaders because they move to a model of mostly ebooks, that’s fine. IT might even save money. However, we need to stop pretending like there is this massive clamoring for ebooks from poor people who are somehow being kept out from reading books just because the library doesn’t lease the rights to digital copies.

  6. Overworked Librarian says:

    Spencer you are so right! I am a little tired of the debate myself.

    People spend money on what they like and what’s important to them. I buy ebooks of text books and books that I have previewed and I know I want to own… or books that were very cheap (under $5 and many free). I have hundreds of ebooks, more than I have time to read. I bought my kindles (recently upgraded to a Fire) to stop cluttering up my apartment with printed books.

    Libraries don’t ‘need’ to provide e-content. There should not be this huge focus on this as some wave of the future to modernize libraries.

    I have heard upper management of the public library where I work say, ‘Our patrons don’t care about printed books anymore’. They believe our patrons are mostly interested in internet access and movies. It sounds to me like that idea of the library of the future is quite anti-library; like it will be devoid of books. It’s a ridiculous notion to me.

  7. librarEwoman says:

    Libraries may not have a choice in this, if publishers and large book venders get their way. We have to start providing electronic content whether we want to or not, in order to remain relevant and useful to our patrons. If libraries don’t have a choice, then poor people don’t, either. Many of the people libraries serve are low to moderate income folks. While there are still plenty of print books available now, it seems very feasible that there may come a day when the only print books around are old or published by indie publishers. If that happens, and people still want to read mainstream, new books, they’ll be forced to use electronic books. And if they can’t afford to buy them, from where will they get them?

    I don’t agree with the logic that someone has no business buying an eReader if they can’t afford to purchase eBooks for it. Yes, people are buying eReaders (either for themselves or as gifts) because they expect libraries to have eBooks they can borrow. Shouldn’t they be able to expect this? The main purpose of libraries has always been to provide access to books; why should the format change this?

    • “I don’t agree with the logic that someone has no business buying an eReader if they can’t afford to purchase eBooks for it”

      Why don’t you agree with this logic? What is the argument against my analogy?

      Also, publishers go with ebooks because we NEVER ACTUALLY OWN THEM. We only rent the rights to them- to be taken away at any time.

      “We have to start providing electronic content whether we want to or not, in order to remain relevant and useful to our patrons.” That time has not arrived yet- and it might never arrive. While it’s great to think about it and keep it in mind, I think it’s a bridge to cross when we get there.

      What we don’t need to do, is stock minidiscs or betamax or anything else that caters to a platform specific middleman.

  8. Overworked Librarian says:

    I seriously doubt printed books will go away. Also I love my e-reader but the idea that I’m just renting rights to the e-books I own doesn’t sit well with me. I still think librarians are blowing this access to e-book debate out of proportion.

    Another perspective I have is that I am also a published author. I like having a few copies of my books in circulation at libraries, but I would also like to earn royalties from purchases. There should be some compromise available. I think it could be that you would have to wait some set amount of time to be able to access an ebook version of a novel in a library… like 3 months or something.

  9. librarEwoman says:

    Spencer, I gave an argument against your analogy, but I’ll clarify further. It’s reasonable to purchase an eReader without expecting to purchase eBooks for it, because it’s reasonable to expect your local library to enable you to borrow eBooks for your eReader. Libraries have always provided access to books. It’s reasonable to expect them to provide access to eBooks.

    It’s not, however, reasonable for someone to purchase an XBox360 without having enough money to also purchase games. Libraries don’t typically lend video games. I don’t know of anywhere that lends video games free of charge.

    So, your entire analogy falls apart. It is possible to borrow eBooks for no charge, and therefore could be worthwhile for someone to invest in an eReader without being able to purchase eBooks. It’s not possible to get games for your XBox360 at no charge, and therefore would be completely stupid to purchase an XBox360 without being able to purchase games for it.

  10. Ohio Librarian says:

    The Centerville-Washington Public Library does loan video games – including those for Xbox360.

  11. Techserving You says:

    LibrarEwoman – there are actually a lot of (somewhat stupid) public libraries which lend videogames. And using your analogy, one might say that since libraries have long carried games, it is reasonable for them to provide electronic games, at least in-house.

  12. Very interesting discussion.

    RE: income, purchasing devices, etc.

    We do have some known lower-income patrons – excuse me, I am required to call them “customers” now – customers who own eReaders, but the majority of eReader owners in our busy mid-sized library are more affluent types who often state that they received their’s as gifts from their children but hadn’t really wanted one (we hear this A LOT). Also, frequently they are affluent people who travel a great deal, hence the eReader purchase.

    To be very honest, the (known) lower-income here use the library for the internet, free DVDs, and, yes, free video games.

    Of course, an argument can be made that we have no way of knowing who is low or high income – but anyone who’s worked in a library for a long time will agree that we figure it out pretty quickly.

    Also, a side note – those free video games? They are stolen or not returned after only 1 or 2 check-outs. It’s become a game to see how long until they go missing. Yet, we keep replacing them. Constantly. THAT, I agree, is stupid.

  13. As one of those higher level income, graduate school educated Kindle owners:
    I read a lot. Perhaps 3-5 books a week. I travel a lot. I used the library or half priced books often in the past, because my habit is expensive. BUT I was raised not to travel with library books (what if you lose or damage them! For shame!)

    So in order to support my habit I bought the $79 kindle. Way better than the 10 bucks a pop. In the first week of having my kindle I got a 10 book series from the library, which would have cost 9.99 a book from Amazon. I intentionally bought the kindle because I thought it would cut down on my ebook purchases.

    Additionally, I don’t want to spend money on something when it’s available from my library. It seems wasteful.

    I think some people though, some wealthy kindle owners I know, will just buy the books without looking at the library.

    I actually found this site because I googled the licensing on the books. I’ve noticed that the some of the newer books I want to read are available in audio, and then in some indeterminate time become available in Kindle format. I was googling to figure out how long I will have to wait!

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