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Inside Annoyed Librarian

In Which I Once Again Solve the Ebook Library Lending Problem

I really am quite prescient these days. It’s an amazing time to be the Annoyed Librarian.

Several months ago, I put forward a proposal in a post I timidly titled, In Which I Solve the Ebook Library Lending Problem. That post was just before a meeting between librarians and publishers, which was preceded by some ridiculous tough talk and some whining about current bestsellers being the “bread and butter” of libraries, as if that mattered to publishers.

I pointed out that from the publisher’s perspective, selling newly released ebooks to libraries “would be like movie studios releasing DVDs alongside their theatrical releases.”

Penguin has just announced that new releases would no longer be sold to libraries, and the status of Penguin sales to libraries was in flux. What did that mean?

I asked whether that meant that “at some point after release, maybe 6-12 months after the initial publication, libraries could then buy the ebooks, is that really such a big problem for libraries or their patrons”, and proposed that  “libraries would be allowed to purchase all their ebooks, but only after a certain amount of time has passed so that publishers can make sure libraries aren’t cutting into the sales of new releases.”

Problem solved. And it turns out that might indeed be the solution. As we read right here  in Library Journal, America’s greatest library publication, Penguin has entered into a new trial with the NYPL and the Brooklyn Public Library to sell ebooks to libraries once again.

The terms? “Ebooks will not be made available to the libraries until six months after initial publication and availability will be for one year, with renewable terms.”

I have to hand it to you, NYPL, BPL, and Penguin, the six month embargo on new releases is a great idea. It solves everyone’s problems.

Sure, there will be librarians who claim it doesn’t solve their problems, but their problems are imaginary. There are actually librarians who think the main purpose of public libraries is to provide instant access to the most current books in every available format. Well, it’s not.

If libraries can get books and ebooks to people within a reasonable time period, they’ve done their job. Six months is definitely not too long to wait to get an ebook if you don’t want to buy it.

If you need it in a hurry, read the print version at the library or buy your own darn ebook. If that’s too much of a sacrifice for you, then you have some serious emotional and mental problems that you probably need to work out before you start reading bestselling ebooks.

What I don’t understand is the “availability for one year.” That’s even more arbitrary than HarperCollins totally arbitrary 26 checkouts limitation, and being more arbitrary than totally arbitrary is pretty arbitrary.

After a year and a half, the vast majority of books enter obscurity anyway. That’s why most public libraries, which pride themselves on paying whatever’s necessary for current bestsellers, end up tossing out most of their books over time.

Is the one year availability meant to make it easier for librarians to weed their collections? Now they don’t even have to bother to go pull a book off a shelf. It’ll just disappear.

A less arbitrary distinction would be to have annual renewals only for books that were still bestsellers. For most books, once the library pays, the library keeps the book in the system. But if the library has had the book for a year, and it’s still on the NYT Bestseller list, then the library pays to renew for another year, and so on indefinitely.

That way, when the Da Vinci Codes and the Dragon Tattoos come along and stay bestsellers for years, libraries can eventually supply the ebooks and continue to renew them for years. For the majority of the books that stop selling, the library copies could be available in perpetuity, just in case some poor soul wanted to read them some day.

The way things are now, once most libraries weed their print books, those books are pretty much unavailable, but ebooks don’t take up space. They could build the virtual collection of public libraries over time and do away with the one flaw of most library collections, that unless everyone wants it right now, no one gets it ever.

Having older books available means there’s a chance they’ll be read. That also means there’s a chance they’ll be rediscovered, and once again start selling well again. At that point, they go back on the list of books that libraries have to renew for a year, until they fade away again.

And for those librarians who continue to whine and argue that ebooks should be just as available as print books because that’s what libraries need, tough. That’s not going to help anyone until publishers stop fearing libraries.

So there you go. Problem solved, once again. You’re welcome.



  1. If each publisher is allowed to set its own terms, won’t that make it difficult to manage an eBook collection?

    Do libraries have eCollection policies in place to manage what gets acquired, renewed and weeded?

  2. Development Arrested says:

    Okay, now we just need to figure out a way to easily train people who don’t know how to turn a computer on, to turn said computer on

    Oh and training patrons to not forget their passwords. There’s nothing quite like having a patron come in and asking you what their Amazon password is. (in fairness to patrons I think it requires a minimum of two passwords to set up ebooks on any of the readers. That’s one more than what should be necessary)

    Let’s face it: eBooks right now are overly complicated. They require librarians (or in my experience para-professionals) and patrons to jump through various technological and economic hoops.

    Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this still, but I don’t know if every library should invest in eBooks at this time. Big libraries? Sure. Medium libraries? Probably. Small libraries without someone on staff trained to give instruction on eBooks? Probably not.

  3. Penguin can keep their e-books. The six-month wait is palatable. The one year renewal is ridiculous. There just comes a point where librarians have to stop being so willing to be taken through the ringer on these e-book models/pricing.

  4. You are absolutely wrong. A book is a book, and libraries must win the same right of purchase on pub date for the eVersion as they have for the hard copy. Or else, we may very well look forward to:

    The End of Libraries

    • Good luck with that Dale. Have fun in your crusade of trying to convince an industry that controls their distribution model what they should do.

    • Dale – I’m with “me” on this one. eBooks are a different domain with different dynamics. I’ve not seen an appreciation of this in library rhetoric, which may be a big reason why they have not been able to establish themselves as an eBook channel.

      Even if libraries gain distribution rights to eBooks, “Development Arrested” and I both raised key questions:
      – Do libraries know how to manage eCollections?
      – Will their product offerings be attractive to customers?

      If the answer is no, this adds more credence to your prediction about “The End of Libraries”.

    • Agree with “me” and Jean. Dogma will kill the libraries. So let’s get creative, shall we?

    • Publishing veteran Joe Esposito summed it up well: “Librarians tend to argue on moral grounds, publishers on economic grounds. Most of the time, the money wins.”

      This February 2012 address at the annual NFAIS conference is highly recommended. Publishing topics covered are:
      1) Extensionism (extending some aspect of an existing business into a new area)
      2) The face-down publishing paradigm
      3) Hybridization of online and physical worlds
      4) Library bypass

  5. My understanding of the one-year term is the deal struck between Penguin, 3M, the NYPL and the Brooklyn Public Library is a one-year test, with the potential for the program to be continued for additional years. If the test goes well, it’s most likely going to be superseded with a commercial program sold by 3M with multi-year terms. So, I wouldn’t read into it that Penguin is saying that it intends to allow its eBooks to be licensed for only one year.

  6. Rosalie Donlon says:

    I believe that e-books are another content delivery system, similar to having a paperback version of a hardcover book. I can understand the six-month wait time, but I would prefer to have the e-book at the same time as the hard cover because the e-book is much easier to travel with. I don’t agree with the one-year renewal. Publishers don’t require libraries to pull hardcovers after a year or when the paperback version comes out so why should they have to pull e-books?

  7. Melinda Mattingly says:

    I don’t know if you’re right or wrong, but you make me laugh and there’s no DOUBT about all of us needing a laugh at this point. Thanks for your great posts!

  8. Really? says:

    And people will continue/start to pirate ebooks, since they won’t be able to get them from the library. In which we see that publishers are no smarter than the music industry or RIAA.

  9. “tossing out most of their books over time”

    Censorship!! Censorship!!


  10. Libraries, take the opportunity to help your patrons discover all the wonderful ebooks being published by small, independent presses. We’re more than happy to work with you to make our books available to more readers. And we’re not so focused on the first six weeks or six months of a book’s life-span. We’re more interested in the “long tail.”

    There are many, many worthy books out there that are not published by the major publishers and librarians can play a key role in helping readers find out about them.

  11. Dude Librarian says:

    “And people will continue/start to pirate ebooks, since they won’t be able to get them from the library. In which we see that publishers are no smarter than the music industry or RIAA.”

    They did it before ebooks were made for specific devices. It’s just not many people knew that there are electronic formats availible for illegal distribution. Since word processing and the internet was made, there had been books typed out and dispersed into the web. Ebooks just saves “pirates” time now cause all they have to do is just change the coding of the file.

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