Libraries and ebooks: tough issues that it’s time to debate

The following article was published in the latest Australian Booksellers Association magazine. I wrote it a couple of months ago and some of the UK moves have been affected by the change of government. (The Digital Economy Act 2010 passed by the previous government did include Section 43 which amends copyright for some public library lending. ) But the issues raised remain important ones which receive too little thought and open debate, a point also made in this posting on the Brave New World blog.

One of the big issues looming on the digital horizon is the role libraries will play with ebooks. A pre-emptive move earlier this year by the UK government has upset booksellers and shows that the industry here, too, needs to get involved in this debate.

So far, libraries’ digital activity has mostly been confined to research uses. The prevalence of the cumbersome PC as the main reading platform means the bread and butter of the book trade, fiction and general non-fiction, has barely been touched. But mobile reading devices and a surge in availability of popular ebooks are pushing libraries into the digital mainstream.

The few libraries experimenting today with ebook downloads typically have very thin collections. This is partly due to tight budgets but also stems from concerns by publishers and authors about how—indeed whether—libraries should lend digital editions of their books.

It’s the latter that has prompted the UK government to legislate so that patrons in libraries can download digital editions to their ebook readers without libraries infringing copyright. At the same time, it will issue an order under legislation “preventing libraries from charging for ebooks lending of any sort, including remotely.”

On the face of it, this looks like a big win for the reading public. Most people I speak to about ebooks get excited by the idea that they’ll be able to borrow them free from their libraries. And most people have a visceral sense that borrowing from a public library should be free to all. But this excitement is not shared as acutely by publishers, authors and booksellers.

Macmillan US CEO John Sargent put the industry problem succinctly when he said recently, “In the past, getting a book from libraries has had a tremendous amount of friction. You have to go to the library, maybe the book has been checked out and you have to come back another time … With ebooks, you sit on your couch in your living room and go to the library website, see if the library has it … You get the book, read it, return it and get another, all without paying a thing … How is that a good model for us?”

For much of the public, politicians, and librarians, this seems like a perfectly good model which accords with the common view that the digital world should operate the same way as print. But it is likely to be bad news for publishers, authors and booksellers. The former might lose sales because libraries can lend ebooks more efficiently (they need fewer websites than physical libraries) and they don’t wear out or get lost. And publishers, authors and booksellers all potentially suffer if the free option is as “frictionless” to get as their more expensive paid editions. And there might be less desire to “own” an electronic file than a real book.

Perversely, libraries are likely to suffer too from the UK government mandate to lend all ebooks free of charge. Most will not be able to afford a serious ebook lending programme without painful cuts to other services. If no other measures are taken, the result will be a crippled ebook service with a very limited selection. Ironically, booksellers concerned about competing with free loans should probably cheer the unintended consequence of this heavy-handed move.

But let’s not cheer too soon. Faced with this outcome, the government might tip the balance in libraries’ favour by forcing rightsholders to make big concessions, effectively subsidising libraries and setting up an even stronger competitor for booksellers. Its planned copyright changes to let libraries lend ebooks with or without publisher permission shows it’s not averse to forcing rightsholders’ hands.

So what is a reasonable role for libraries and how do we achieve this balance of interests? To avoid the heavy-handed legislative approach we’re seeing unfold in the UK, we need to talk directly to the library sector and other stakeholders in our own part of the world.

And we need to consider how the ebooks ecosystem will evolve.

If we look at the film industry as a comparison, there’s an initial cinematic release followed by release to rental and sell-through channels, then pay TV, then free-to-air TV. Through this measured roll-out, the industry manages to extract value at every price point, including free, and sells through many channels to reach as much of the market as possible. About 80% of the film industry’s income is earned after cinematic release.

Ebooks need a range of channels and price points too, to properly service the market and maximise the value of our creative assets. And with books it’s not just an economic equation: we have to consider social impacts.

So which channels will open up for ebooks? We’re in the early stages of developing a “full price” channel and still have a lot of work to do selling the value of digital books to consumers. And we can expect that libraries will offer some sort of free channel, whether selectively or open to all. Other (legal) free-to-consumer channels might emerge, perhaps through ISPs—and might have to develop to stem piracy.

I personally would like to see a vibrant rental channel for ebooks. And I’d like to see both libraries and booksellers participating, perhaps with release dates delayed just as DVDs today follow cinematic release. This would be an interesting “back to the future” scenario for booksellers. Before the public library movement, they had a thriving book rental market and in their heyday, there were more than 1000 “circulating libraries” in mid-nineteenth century Britain.

A paid rental option could bring much-needed money into libraries’ strained coffers, resulting in a better service to patrons who can pay and, with this improved funding, a better free service for those who can’t. For publishers and authors, it offers the prospect of fair compensation for readership through libraries.

While booksellers might be concerned that libraries are straying into commercial territory, it will be worse all around if they are backed into a corner by politicians and a public with high expectations, while not given the resources to deliver on these aspirations.

We’d then confront two equally grim scenarios: a high quality free service competing aggressively with booksellers and largely paid for by onerous terms thrust on publishers and authors by legislation. Or a crippled public library service struggling with dwindling patronage and increasing irrelevance.

These are tough issues with far-reaching impacts. Time to start talking and find a way through this.