Libraries Go Direct To Indie Authors, Rather Than Deal With Big Publisher Ebook Limits

from the lending-has-power dept

It is no secret that many people in the Big Six publishing houses do not understand or do not care for the lending of ebooks. This has made the shift from physical to digital very difficult for libraries. Libraries have been a staple of many communities and those people’s ability to have access to new books to read. Now that many readers are going digital, libraries are finding it harder and harder to keep up with demand, primarily because of publishers holding out.

Over at Joe Konrath’s blog, we learn of the plight of one such library system in Houston, Texas. Mike and Linda, librarians from the Harris County Public Library, explain to Joe that trying to work with the publishing industry can be a big headache for libraries.

Libraries are not able to purchase all of the eBooks we would like to purchase due to publisher and author concerns about copyright protection in the digital format. Only two of the big six publishers will sell eBooks to libraries, and those pricing models either limit us to a low number of checkouts or charge us more than twice the retail price for a book. Very few picture books are available for us to purchase, even though small children are a large part of our customer base and we often use digital books in storytimes. With adult fiction titles, we can’t always offer complete series because of format availability or publisher restrictions. Some publishers would even like to implement a plan that would force people to come to the library to check out eBooks, rather than being able to do it online, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Right off the bat, with only two of six publishers willing to sell ebooks to libraries, we have a big problem. Unfortunately for the libraries, buying and lending ebooks is nothing like the physical world in which a library could just pop over to Walmart or get on Amazon and order a couple copies of the latest hit. With ebooks, they have to deal with licensing issues and other restrictions from publishers that would block any such ability in the digital realm.

Second, there is the lack of availability of ebooks in a variety of formats. If a person comes in without a supported ereader, then that person is left unserved by the library, something that most librarians do not like. What is worse is that person who wanted to read a book had to walk away empty handed, thus limiting the exposure of the book and author to a potential new fan. 

All these problems and more limit the ability of libraries to spread the love of books, which also limits the ability for authors to gain the needed exposure and resulting sales.

So what does the library have to offer? Book borrowing habits are changing, mainly because of eBooks. People are more open to impulse browsing and discovery of new authors and titles and the library provides the collection and staff to aid them in this discovery. Once they’ve discovered a new favorite, the quest for reading gratification leads to backlist purchases. (We speak from personal experience on this.)

This ability to try a new author or series without having to spend money is something that we have supported many times. It is one way to battle obscurity as a creator. Without the ability for readers to try out a new author for free, that author may lose out on potential sales. Libraries are important tools in gaining that exposure and publishers are blocking them from doing their job. So what is a library to do? In this case, skip the publisher and go straight to the author.

Public libraries have always selected print books based on professional reviews and public demand. This doesn’t always work with eBooks. With eBooks, we have to focus on availability and public interest. We are also rethinking our relationship with self-publishing. Many libraries, such as ours, are now looking for ways to purchase eBooks directly from authors and independent publishers.

This is the way to go. We have learned over the years that it is the gatekeepers that tend to be the roadblock toward better exposure and better terms for readers and authors alike. By skipping the Big Six and any other publisher that does not want to allow lending on fair terms, these libraries can expand their collections and better serve the public.

In response to this change in plan from this library, Joe Konrath has decided on some very favorable terms for his books, which he hopes other authors adopt as well.

Blake and I are willing to sell our entire ebook catalog to the Harris County Public Library, and to any other libraries that are interested, under these terms:

1. Ebooks are $3.99

2. No DRM.

3. The library only needs to buy one ebook of a title, and then they can make as many copies as they need for all of their patrons and all of their branches.

4. The library owns the rights to use that ebook forever.

5. The library can use it an any format they need; mobi, epub, pdf, lit, etc. And when new formats arise, they’re free to convert it to the new format.

In short, the library buys one copy, and never has to buy it again.

Why is he willing to make such favorable terms? Wouldn’t doing so cut into his potential sales? Not in the slightest.

No I’m not. They bought a copy. They can do what they want with it. And my hope is because I don’t have restrictions, and keep my costs low, the library will continue to buy my new ebooks as I release them. There are a lot of libraries in the US, and a lot more globally. If I sell every library one of my ebooks for $3.99, that’s a nice amount of money.

One could certainly make a nice amount selling just to libraries. Add to that the additional sales as you would gain from exposure with new fans and you could make a nice living. All because an author embraces the advertising power of libraries.

This consensus between these librarians and Joe shows that there is little reason for publisher to continue their unfavorable attitude toward libraries. Libraries have never been a threat to publishing prior to the adoption of ereaders, there is no reason to think they will be now. If publishers are willing to embrace the lending culture that has been around for hundreds of years, they could have a far easier and more successful transition to the digital age.

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Comments on “Libraries Go Direct To Indie Authors, Rather Than Deal With Big Publisher Ebook Limits”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I think Konrath has his eye on "the long game."

I used to do most of my new author discovering via my local public library. In my youth(high school), I never would have heard of my heroes like E. E. Smith, Poul Anderson, or Robert A. Heinlein without such access. Now I want to buy everything any of them has ever done in eBook format.

If people discover Konrath via a library, anybody want to bet against their adding his books to their collections directly and skipping the middleman?

Yes, there WILL be people who abuse the system. But there will be a heckuva lot more who won’t.

Gothenem (profile) says:

Re: I think Konrath has his eye on "the long game."

Indeed. I find that publishers (and gatekeepers in general) simply miss the fact that most people want to consume their content legally and paid for, but they don’t want to be hassled for doing so.

The few people who abuse the system would have done so anyways, and so instead of harming everyone to get the small minority of abusers, they should focus on keeping their paying audience happy, and let the abusers get their just rewards when they are caught.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Great, but

Well one way to start would be by contacting libraries. If you never tell them you are open to this sort of thing they’ll never know. One thing you might do is for local ones schedule a book reading. Libraries are used to publishers trying to extract money from them and give them licenses that they can take away so they might not believe what you mean that its actually $3.99 do what you want with it and not $3.99 per patron while I have the ability to cut your legs out from under you. Make it clear “the library buys one copy, and never has to buy it again”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Great, but

Forgot to mention alot of libraries are school libraries perhaps talk with your local schools about your book. As of October 2011 there are an estimated 122,000 libraries

If you could sell to a tenth of those at $3.99 that’s $48,678 that is a nice chunk of change.

anon says:

Re: Re: Re: Great, but

I think a lot of authors would be more than happy to make this type of money over the lifetime of there books, and if they can release a new book every year they could have a really nice standard of living, but where are all the libraries going to get the money to buy all of these ebooks. Is the Governement going to give them money for something that actually has no real value, there is no physical copy to put on a shelf. Maybe the libraries need to start getting authors to attend more book reading clubs maybe again allowing them to sell merchandise from the Library. Things could get way way better than they are right now for libraries even though people would not need to visit the actual premises to get a copy of a book.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Great, but

Yes… but do you honestly think that school library budgets will explode to buy digital material? Or will they be still set with the same budgets, buying maybe 1% of what is out there?

Will they start to “borrow” from each other, with one central library for the whole country holding all the books for schools (single copy) that is endlessly copied for everyone else?

Actually, think about it: Why have school libraries at all? Why not just one single central national school library, buying a single copy of the book and then lending out an infinite number of copies? I can bet that schools with budget issues would love to do that! Just think about how incredibly huge the market will be for new work when they are selling only 1 copy for all schools. Yup, write a book, make $3.99, repeat. There is a career there, I tell ya!

Brendan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Great, but

You fail to see the big picture. I would consider it an amazing opportunity to get my books into every school in the USA, even if I made nothing up front.

Consider that there are roughly 80 million students in the USA. If you can convince just 1% of those students to pick up your book and try to read it, you’ve just had 800,000 reads. If just 1% of those readers actually _liked_ your book, you’ve just picked up 8,000 new fans. If they buy 1 book each, you just made $24,000.

If your books are good, you’ll find more fans buying more books, making you more money. If your books are terrible, maybe you only make $5-10 thousand, and that’s ok, because you didn’t spend that much time on it, or it’s just a side hobby.

Think bigger.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Great, but

Actually, you’re right. The way it’s worded now (“Ebooks are $3.99”) is extremely vague. He would have to explicitly say that the $3.99 is a one-time fee and that it’s a sale, not a license.

It’s sad that he should have to explicitly point this out. It used to be taken for granted that once you paid for something, it was yours to use, sell, or dismantle however you wanted. These days we expect our software, movie, ebook, and movie purchases to come with strings attached. We expect to click through an EULA screen every time we install a program. We expect our media to be buried in DRM. We expect ebooks to cost as much as print versions or more.

Goes to show how much damage the big publishers have done to our expectations.

The Groove Tiger (profile) says:

Re: Great, but

“Ok thats a great attitude and policy. But, now, how do you get the libraries to know your fantastic terms, and who you are and what your product is. These terms are going to be very attractive, but you still need a way to get them to know about you and your products.”

I agree. We need a system, where people and libraries can send messages all across the country (nay, world) very efficiently and at a very low cost. This system will allow everyone to tell everyone else about these authors and their great terms.

I’m going to call it… the Globaltubes!

Englishdevil (profile) says:


I wrote a big comment but decided to cut it down to a few sentences.

Authors are going to have to find a way to compete with free, just as music and video has to.Maybe even more so than music and video because there are so many books that can be added to a collection from places like Amazon, by new and upcoming authors for free and legally.
The publishing houses are an old business model that is just not working in this age of technology, locking down content trying to tell people they are only buying a licence to read and nobody else can read a book you have purchased is not going to work.
The only thing that will help authors is if they find ways to give extra content, maybe the author going to chat on there web page on a regular basis , discussing there books and answering questions, or selling merchandise to fans.

I don’t know how the publishing houses are going to save themselves, I personally don’t see them being around in a few years, but you never know maybe they will realsie that what the customer wants is important and give it to them by lowering prices offering more and not treating all of there customer like they are thieves just for wanting to share a book they have read with someone they know

Zos (profile) says:

this is the only plan i’ve heard that could stop libraries from becoming ghetto’s as readers turn en masse to piracy.

It’s sane, it makes sense, it embraces access to culture, and for all of those reasons i expect it to be litigated out of existence any moment.

to be honest, i don’t understand how libraries haven’t ALREADY been litigated out of existence for the sin of sharing books/music/movies. Do they have some kind of grandfathered in protections?

Anonymous Coward says:

Like AC #1, I learned of the authors I like at a young age from reading checked out books at the library. Going back to the younger days, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were both fodder for reading. Later on I ran out of those and turned to scifi. E.E. Doc Smith, Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Kline, to only name a few of the many.

What happened next is I became a life long reader of scifi. Probably over my lifetime I’ve brought enough books to fill a library in finding those that I enjoyed reading. It all started at the public library.

So guess what would have happened under today’s rigid requirements for ebooks? I’d most likely never have found this reading interest nor would I have purchased as many books as a result.

Anonymous Coward says:

Indie artists, desperate for exposure and attention, bend over and take it in the rear hoping that someone pays attention to them.

Giving a library the right to make as many copies and to distribution them as much as they like is a pure recipe for killing what little ebook market may exist. People will learn very quickly to just get a library access and “borrow” the book forever. Path of lease resistance.

It’s sad to see authors who think they have to do this in order to get ahead. They don’t seem to consider that “ahead” means “out of business”.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Re:

AC said: “Giving a library the right to make as many copies and to distribution them as much as they like is a pure recipe for killing what little ebook market may exist. People will learn very quickly to just get a library access and “borrow” the book forever.”
Oh, yeah, because everyone’s a ‘pirate’ by default. Go boil your head, you maximalist shill!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Actually, I am specifically looking at what happens if you scale it. Path of least resistance says you don’t buy the ebook anymore, you just “borrow” it from your local 24 hour per day, always online “library”.

When you scale it big enough for people to understand the process, it won’t scale to more sales – it will scale to more demand for library access. Think of it as disruptive technology, as everyone races to the bottom, producing books for a very few library sales.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Re:

Giving a library the right to make as many copies and to distribution them as much as they like is a pure recipe for killing what little ebook market may exist.

Oooooohhh woe, woe! Waily, waily!…. books are dyyyyying… that nasty eeeevil intuhnets is destroying leeterature for eeeeveryone! Is this a relative of yours by any chance?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Let’s see. First link is the Guardian, an op-ed type piece written by a “web producer” looking to be a writer. Check.

Second link? The numbers look good, but it appears to be clustered mostly around a couple of young adult series (you know, those dreaded sequels). The ebook sales also seem to be following a similar pattern to CDs when they were released. People filled up their back catalog, generating a lift, and then, well, we saw what piracy has done.

Third one: Nope: But I did find your picture A great likeness.

Malor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

and then, well, we saw what piracy has done.

What you ACs keep (deliberately?) misunderstanding is that the total amount of money being spent on music goes up every year. It’s just going to different parts of the music business.

Making copies of things has almost no value. Everyone can do that, for free. So the idea of charging super-premium prices for making a copy is fundamentally broken. Charging $15 to do something that can be done hundreds of times for less than a cent is not a viable business model, when your customers have the exact same technology and cost structure available to them.

The people providing actual value, on the other hand, are doing quite nicely.

Maybe the record companies will realize that they’re not record companies anymore, that they’re audio engineering and promotion outfits instead, and that they work for the artists, rather than the other way around. But I don’t think they’ll go there quietly or gently.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

For most people and most books,they read it once. Being able to keep a copy is largely immaterial. Also libraries allow people top read far more books than they can buy. If for physical books, Libraries and second hand books are lumped together as free, authors compete against free for physical books.
Cory Doctorow is still the business of writing and publishing books, both paper and ebook. His ebooks are free under a CC license.

Anonymous Coward says:

This guy has the right idea.

I agree with Joe completely, and his move here is an excellent contrast to the backward, self-centered ways of mainstream publishing. Digital data costs nothing to copy and distribute (beyond the overhead of storage, Internet service, electric bill, etc.), and I think that $3.99 is a perfectly reasonable price for an ebook (a big publisher would likely have asked for the price of the print version or more).

I think the decision to permit copying and leave the pirates alone was a good one. Sure, it will probably lower his sales in the short term, but in the long run it will give him a wider audience, and thus more fans willing to pay for his works. The problem here is that the big publishers and their shareholders are only looking at short-term profits, and therefore their business models revolve around maximizing short-term revenue from each sale. In the publishers’ view, anything that cuts into short-term profits is harmful to the business, so they resort to anti-competitive action; they try to justify the behavior using things like copyright law.

In my opinion, the root of the copyright problem is the fact that bytes are not a scarce resource, yet established industries have built their business models around scarcity. To this day I don’t understand why the old middlemen seem to be in denial. They try (and ultimately fail, every time) to create scarcity where it doesn’t exist, in the form of DRM and EULAs. Joe, on the other hand, in offering these generous (by mainstream standards) terms, is showing that he recognizes this fundamental difference between the real and the virtual, and is willing to embrace it, rather than fight it like the major publishers.

Denial is the first stage of death. What the major publishers, record labels, and movie studios don’t seem to understand is that, because of the computer revolution, we don’t need them anymore. They no longer have any excuses not to listen to us. By continuing to live in the past, they’re only speeding up their decline.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This guy has the right idea.

“In my opinion, the root of the copyright problem is the fact that bytes are not a scarce resource, yet established industries have built their business models around scarcity”

Actually, I think the root of the copyright problem is that you are looking at things only in the single way that they can be duplicated, and are failing to look at WHAT is being duplicated – or how that duplication in the end kills the market that pays to create it.

You think they are trying to stop you from doing what you can physically accomplish, which is copying the file. What they are actually trying to do is to maintain a functional business model that allows them to keep making more of the very stuff you copy. Without the content, you would be copying nothing.

The best argument against piracy is enlightened self interest. The best argument for piracy is ignoring it’s implications.

Malor (profile) says:

I think maybe he’s being a little _too_ generous, in this case. I think it would be fair to charge the library $3.99 per simultaneous title they want to check out. So if they want 20 people to be able to read the book at once, it should cost them the same as buying 20 copies. But the copies don’t wear out, and they can freely convert them. Library wins (it’s still a lot cheaper than paper books, both for purchase and handling/maintenance), author wins (gets paid per copy in use), everyone’s happy.

I realize that thinking of copies as being an interesting or valuable thing is broken, in the digital age. But it seems to me that this would be a good transition method, to the eventual model I think we’re going to arrive at, something more like Kickstarter. As the Kickstarter-type money increases, authors can start dropping the per-copy charges to libraries, and eventually go to a tiny, token fee to indicate legitimacy. But I think maybe this fellow is going there a little too soon for his own good.

Of course, jumping into the new model that’s going to work very early can be a powerful market advantage — he could think of the money “lost” as advertising, a form of investment in his own future. The risk is that the model is wrong, but I don’t think it is. He’s way early, but he’s right.

M. K. W. says:

Thank you for this post.

As a librarian and budding author, I appreciate someone taking the time to expose ideas like this. In library school, people would toss ideas around such as this and we’d all say “wouldn’t it be nice…” But then you don’t often hear of anyone gutsy enough or with the know-how to get out there and make the offer. So, kudos!

Jane says:

Long Term Views

The more I read up on Joe Konrath, the more I think he doesn’t really have a strong grasp of what can happen in the long term with eBooks. Right now, yes you’ll get $3.99 from each library and make a lot of money in the short term, but you need to dig deeper. Now the library has lifetime rights to a DRM free EBOOK file that can be freely distributed throughout the world in a number of ways. Library readers (of course not all but many) are the type who really like free stuff, and aren’t really motivated to buy books. They’ll just copy the file and probably even share it online. 3 years from now, what incentive does anyone have to purchase one of his books when it’s freely available just about everywhere? The only real income potential is from those libraries buying $3.99 a copy for each new release and maybe a few sales on Amazon. I just don’t see things his way from a long-term business standpoint. Gonna go with the major publishers on this one.

Malor (profile) says:

3 years from now, what incentive does anyone have to purchase one of his books when it’s freely available just about everywhere?

It will be freely available just about everywhere anyway — and he’s $4 richer doing it this way. All it takes is one person breaking the DRM, and it’s dirt-easy to do that, and everyone can have copies just as easily as they can get them from the library. There’s no value in copies.

Without the content, you would be copying nothing.

Right, so we need to work out how to pay someone to create content, not how to pay them for copies. Making copies is worthless. It’s not worth charging for that.

The only reason we think that’s the right approach is because plastic disks could only be made in specialized factories, so the business model that emerged was the plastic disk makers bribing authors and musicians for content, so they could sell more plastic.

But we don’t need plastic anymore. Every single person with a computer has a fully functional bit-duplication facility. Trying to bend the old models to suit the new reality doesn’t work at all. There are no more plastic disks, and pretending that there are is fundamentally stupid. And not just stupid, but STUPID, in all-caps skywriting.

We need to pay for the act of creation, not for making copies. In the old world, the people with the duplication facilities, the record companies, defined the terms of the relationship. In the new world, the people with the duplication facilities still define the terms of the relationship, at least as far as the copies go — except that’s end-users. Everyone reading this comment has a fully operational factory that can make millions of copies of anything.

When every one of your customers can, for a cost so small it disappears into their monthly overhead, make thousands of copies of any digital product you produce, well, selling copies to these people is like selling ice to Eskimos. It can be done, but your ice had better be really good, and really, really cheap.

Or, we can move to the new economic reality of the digital age, which is that creating things is hard and expensive, so that’s what we should pay for, by funding those we love directly. “Hey,” we’ll think, “I loved Imogen Heap’s last album, so I’ll kick in $5 or $10 so she’ll make another.” And then superfans can give more. See: Kickstarter.

Over the long haul, charging for copies is a deeply flawed, probably impossible business model. If someone can easily do something themselves for free, there’s not a lot of money in doing it for them.

And deploying the guns of the government to enforce the idea that plastic disks exist, where none actually do, will cause economic harm far in excess of any harm caused by record companies going out of business. Even if every author and every musician and every record company stopped producing content tomorrow, that would still do us far less harm than trying to sabotage the Internet and everyone’s computers.

And, of course, nothing that severe will ever happen. There will always be authors and musicians, because some folks need to do it like they need to breathe. They’d write and compose and perform even if there was no money in it at all. And, I would argue, we’d probably end up with better music and writing, because people doing it for the love of it are usually better than those who are in it for the lucre.

But even that won’t happen, because we’ve seen just how much money can be raked in by people who give stuff away for free. It hasn’t scaled yet to the tens and hundreds of millions, but it doesn’t need to — that was all going to the plastic disk and paper book industries, which are dying. The part that’s going to the musicians and authors is all that really needs to be preserved, and that very clearly can happen without them selling even a single copy of anything.

Julanna says:

Not such a new idea

A few of us in the library world have been pushing for something like this for a while. Part of the problem is reader habits. A lot of people go to libraries wanting mainstream books. I personally read indies all the time, so I know the good out there but it will take a major shift in readers wants to make this work. More promotion by indie authors and by libraries to push what is, essentially, a new service.

James Lythgoe (user link) says:

Looking to distribute ebook to libraries

As an indie author with a positive Kirkus review, I am looking for a way to sell my ebook to libraries. I don’t know of any wholesalers who are willing to do business with an indie author. Can you offer any advice? Thank you.

My book is called The Golf Swing: It’s all in the Hands and is listed on and other places.

Kind regards,
James Lythgoe

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