If Libraries Didn't Exist, Would Publishers Be Trying To Kill Book Lending?

from the making-life-that-little-bit-more-diffcult dept

Against the background of today's war on sharing, exemplified by SOPA and PIPA, traditional libraries underline an inconvenient truth: allowing people to share things – principally books in the case of libraries – does not lead to the collapse of the industry trying to sell those same things. But publishers really don't seem to have learned that lesson, judging by this article in the New York Times about the nonsensical attitude they have to libraries lending out ebooks:
In their eyes, borrowing an e-book from a library has been too easy. Worried that people will click to borrow an e-book from a library rather than click to buy it, almost all major publishers in the United States now block libraries' access to the e-book form of either all of their titles or their most recently published ones.
This suggests that if libraries didn't exist, and somebody tried to set one up, publishers would use the same logic to refuse to sell traditional books for that purpose. History shows that's an absurd position, but equally absurd are the efforts of publishers to make borrowing ebooks less convenient:
To keep their overall revenue from taking a hit from lost sales to individuals, publishers need to reintroduce more inconvenience for the borrower or raise the price for the library purchaser.
The article invokes the example of paperbacks published some time after the hardback edition as an equivalent situation. But that's about pricing: publishers don't try to make it "inconvenient" for people to borrow paperbacks from libraries by creating special low-quality copies that fall to pieces after a few loans (essentially what Harper Collins does with its ebooks), nor do they add surcharges to the paperback price to try to squeeze more from the libraries that lend them out.

Sadly, publishers really are thinking along these lines:
Ms. Thomas of Hachette says: "We've talked with librarians about the various levers we could pull," such as limiting the number of loans permitted or excluding recently published titles.
Publishers are so obsessed with stamping out this ebook sharing scourge that they are oblivious to two likely consequences of their current approach. One, obviously, is increased piracy: if potential customers want to try out an ebook before buying it, but it's not available for them to borrow at their local library, it will certainly be available somewhere online, if they look hard enough. The risk is that having procured an unauthorized copy, they don't then go on to replace it with an authorized one.

The other problem for those publishers boycotting public libraries is evident from a comment by a librarian quoted in the New York Times piece:
Ms. Nesbitt adds, however, that many of the library's patrons aren't aware that other publishers are withholding e-books from it.
If library users aren't aware that certain titles are being withheld, that means they haven't asked for them - probably because they haven't heard of those ebooks, or think they won't be interested. Keeping titles out of public libraries makes it less likely that readers will ever find out about them or change their minds. After all, as the article goes on to say, there is no lack of alternatives:
While many major publishers have effectively gone on strike, more than 1,000 smaller publishers, who don’t have best-seller sales that need protection, happily sell e-books to libraries. That means the public library has plenty of e-books available for the asking — no waiting.
A familiar pattern emerges. Small, innovative publishers who are ready to adapt, reap the benefits by meeting the growing demand for ebooks at local libraries – and doubtless picking up knock-on sales as a result. Meanwhile, big, sclerotic publishers resist trying out new business models, preferring to make the use of digital formats for lending as "inconvenient" as possible – in the forlorn hope that readers will just give up and buy something. We all know how that story ends.

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Filed Under: books, ebooks, lending, libraries, publishing

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Jan 2012 @ 9:00am


    If I may add to what you said Steerpike. You have it down pat, but there are a few notable additions I'd like to make. I have several e-readers in my household and have purchased a few as gifts, I am also a major techie and have kept up with what's been transpiring as far as ebooks and libraries and the publishers are up to.

    1. As far as ebooks and the libraries are concerned, it'll be treated the same as a traditional book. You still have to have a traditional library membership to "check out" an ebook. You will still have to "return" them by a given date. The part about "renewals" I assume you mean as in purchasing a replacement book that is in bad shape. The libraries are up for negotiations on this point, as in ebook A can be "checked out" X amount of times before they purchase a new license for said book.

    Now here's what I'd like to add to Point 1. The libraries intend to treat an ebook the same as a traditional copy. They are willing to negotiate on quite a few points. The publishers however have started off on the wrong foot and are making demands for the most part. In some cases, extreme ones with no room or willingness to negotiate. They want libraries to purchase ebooks as they would traditional books, but with the added part of a book can ONLY be checked out 5 times before they must rebuy it. (Now, this isn't across the board for all publishers. But from what I've read elsewhere, 5 is about the average.) Then, on top of that they want to limit how long a book can be checked out for. I've seen dates ranging from 3 days to 2 weeks. With the bigger publishers wanting for shorter lengths.

    2. This is in addition to what you said, as far as a library not having a book a person seeks or it being checked out, the same will apply to ebooks. But in regards to purchases of the licenses for them. Say I want to read "The Hunt for Red October". The library has 5 "copies" of the ebook. All 5 are checked out, in that case I'm out of luck until a copy is "returned". As you said, "there is no reason for these factors to exist in digital lending." In regards to checking out as many copies as they want and what have you, however, the libraries are willing and want to put such traditional factors in place. In order to be fair about the whole thing, but the publishers want more and more restrictions in place. To the point, that some libraries are considering cutting back on ebooks.

    Now this is fine. In that case, there'll be no problem. But what the publishers should see is that this is another avenue for them to pursue. They can sell their books to the libraries who'll check them out to people with ereaders. Who may then become customers.

    I own a Nook Color, Barnes and Noble has a "Lend Me" feature. Unfortunately, due to publisher restrictions NOT all books can be lent out. However, a decent enough amount can. I was "lent" a few ebooks by a friend. I enjoyed them so much, I purchased my own copies of those same books and then went on to purchase everything else by the author of those books. Had my friend NOT lent me those books, I'd never had heard of them and never have bought any of those works. This shows that sales were gained by the lending feature. Which is what these publishers should strive for. Better to gain a sale, than not have a sale at all. (And I don't mean a loss, because you can't lose what you never had. In my case, I wouldn't have bought a book in the first place that I didn't even know existed.)

    My 2 cents: The publishers have an opportunity here being presented to them in it's infancy. They can embrace it, unlike the studios/labels, and adapt to it and adapt it to their needs or they can miss out and fight it tooth and claw. In the end, the ones who have the most to lose are themselves. People will still check out the traditional books. Here's an opportunity to open up a new market, and most people with cash to buy e-readers have no problem spending a few bucks on an ebook if they're given the opportunity. What better way to entice them, than by putting material out there for them to check out at their local library? Most e-readers have benefits of one type or another. Per my case, I can read for an hour a day any book free in-store (at Barnes and Noble). I've done so and discovered numerous authors and then made purchases from the B&N online store. Plenty of others I've seen do the same. So the market's there, are they willing to go for it though? I think it's a great chance to embrace technology, the internet (because books can be purchased on a computer and read there and then sent to your device/synced with it) and all that jazz.

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