Discussions between libraries and the big six publishers over e-book lending have grabbed headlines in 2012, but despite cordial statements from each side about the benefits of communication, a report released this month from the American Library Association suggests the two sides remain far from a breakthrough.

“Mixed” is how Robert Wolven, associate university librarian at Columbia University, and co-chair of the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group, describes the state of affairs between libraries and publishers. “I think the discussions we’ve had demonstrate that we’re not at an impasse,” Wolven tells PW. “There are potential paths for exploration and for improving things. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

To some, however, that may be understating the matter. In its August 8 report, “E-Book Business Models for Public Libraries,” the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group detailed the frustrating patchwork of various publisher policies, vendor products, emerging models, and user expectations libraries must navigate in order to provide e-book service to their customers. And despite the ongoing talks, there has been no real progress—in some cases, even regression.

“Some major trade publishers will not sell e-books to libraries under any terms; others do so only at inflated prices or with severe restrictions,” the report states. Still others appear to be “making little or no headway” at all in their dealings with libraries.

Nevertheless, despite the report’s somber assessment of the library e-book landscape, Wolven says the talks have been “tremendously useful,” and that the ongoing dialogue augurs well for progress. More meetings are on tap for the coming months. Wolven is also quick to add that the talks are not negotiations—there is no deal on the table, or to walk away from. Rather, there’s the opportunity to educate and to learn.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Wolven says, “but as with many areas of society these days, there is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds.”

Out of Patience?

Cautious optimism notwithstanding, a quick spin around the Internet shows that the library community at large is growing uneasy with the lack of progress on e-books. In the weeks since the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, the tone and tenor of the e-book conversation among rank-and-file librarians has clearly changed.

In her August 13 editorial, Library Journal editor Francine Fialkoff began with a line that reads like a setup to a librarian joke. “How many committees does it take to come up with an e-book strategy for public libraries?” Her conclusion, however, is no punch line. “Ineffectual committees don’t cut it anymore. We must work harder to protect readers now, and into the future.”

Meanwhile, a post by Sarah Houghton, director for the San Rafael (Calif.) Public Library, on her personal blog, Librarian in Black, has gone viral in the library community. The entertainingly written (and laugh-out-loud funny at some points) piece portrays e-books as a bad boyfriend—but Houghton is dead serious in her critique of the dilemma facing libraries.

“Why in hell are we covering for a bad situation? Who gains from us putting a happy face on the dismal e-book situation in libraries?” she asks. “E-books in libraries are a nonstarter, their path has been set for the foreseeable future, and their future is determined by people who are not us.”

Houghton acknowledges that library users want e-books. “But does that mean that we trade away our core values and ethics to provide anything, under any terms? Does it mean that we spend our residents’ limited tax dollars on subpar products with subpar usage terms and no ownership or longevity guarantees?” she asks. “Or is the fact that people want e-books from their libraries and we can’t get them going to turn out to be enough reason to stop the madness and engage in a massive national boycott of the societal conflagration that we are faced with for the future of digital information?”

Andy Woodworth, a librarian from the Bordentown (N.J.) Library who in 2011 started a petition to protest HarperCollins’s 26-lend limit (garnering 70,000 signees), also voices support for action on his blog, Agnostic, Maybe.

“I’ve grown tired of the oft-expressed line when it comes to the Big Six publishers and e-books: we just need to talk to them,” he writes. “Quite frankly, I’ve heard enough about a demand for leadership to rise up and lead the Pickett-like charge for library e-book lending. I want to see leadership for the ‘walk the fuck away’ camp, an ideology centered around not wasting time, energy, and resources on deals that don’t serve the library as an institution, the community as a dependable and enduring resource, and our stakeholders as a wise investment. There are other publishing entities out there that are worthy of our attention and our budget lines.”

Mad as hell? Not going to take it anymore?

“I think a lot of public librarians are right to ask why they should keep throwing money—and a lot of money—at this thing that seems to change every day and might not be here tomorrow,” says Sue Polanka, a librarian at Wright State University in Ohio, and author of the respected e-book blog, No Shelf Required. “There are other things libraries can do,” she says. “Libraries can find other voids to fill.”

Market Boosters

Steve Potash, CEO of Overdrive, the dominant vendor in the library e-book space, concedes that the end of 2011 and early 2012 saw the publisher pendulum swing away from library e-book lending, at least with some publishers. But, he says, the pendulum is swinging back.

“There’s a genuine optimism and there is some real, positive movement,” he says. He cites two recent developments: after raising prices in March on library e-books, Random House began lowering prices last month in response to library feedback. And HarperCollins, which faced a library backlash in 2011 over its 26-lend limit, is again “selling strongly” and being “re-adopted” by the library market, Potash says, as more libraries are willing to test the restriction, at least for now.

Despite half of the big six (Macmillan, S&S, and Penguin) not participating in library e-book lending, Potash stresses that the vast majority of publishers are lending e-books to libraries. “By sheer percentages of publishers,” he notes, it is a “small group” not playing ball, although, he concedes, it’s a significant group. “I like to also focus on the 97% of trade publishers who have been enjoying the benefits of public library promotion, marketing, and exposure for their books.”

Indeed, if the vendor marketplace is any indication, library e-book lending certainly appears headed for better days. The last year has seen a host of new players enter the field, all with designs on taking a piece of Overdrive’s market share, and all clearly betting on the viability of library e-book lending.

In June 2011, 3M launched Cloud Library. While still ramping up, it currently offers more than 100,000 e-book titles, and the company is hoping to set itself up as a more flexible option for libraries.

Perhaps the most intriguing new entry is Library Ideas’ product, Freading. Launched in December 2011, Freading is a rental, or “pay-per-use,” service, and as such is different from its competitors. In fact, the service is often used as a supplemental service for libraries with Overdrive. “Freading is a quick and inexpensive way to take some of the pressure off holds,” CEO Brian Downing told PW, and a way for libraries “to increase the breadth and depths of their e-book collections.” Downing says the service now serves more than 700 libraries, with more than 100 publishers on board, and the company is close to signing up its first big six publisher.

Not to be left behind, some of the library market’s biggest players have taken the plunge into e-books. Traditional powerhouse Baker & Taylor launched Axis 360. The platform is powered by the Blio e-reading software and currently offers more than 100,000 e-book titles, as well as other media. As part of Baker & Taylor, Axis 360 has the advantage of being associated with a well-respected and widely used player in the library market.

ProQuest, meanwhile, has fully integrated its acquisition of ebrary into its portfolio; EBSCO has integrated its purchase of pioneer e-book brand netLibrary; and Ingram has MyiLibrary. While these services traditionally have targeted scholarly reference and more research-oriented audiences, they are all aggressively crafting collections for public libraries—and hoping to engage the big six about popular content as well.

E-books, of course, aren’t the only digital service available for lending. Audiobooks are very popular among libraries and are a key part of the library business. In fact, both Macmillan and S&S, neither of which allows e-book lending, do permit audio downloads.

Sensing an opportunity in the market, Recorded Books, in Maryland, invested in and rolled out its OneClick Digital platform in 2011, and has quickly expanded from a large, well-regarded audiobook publisher to “one-stop shopping” for audiobooks in the library market. In terms of titles offered, Recorded Books now offers perhaps the largest selection to libraries (as well as becoming a digital aggregator).

Recorded Books CEO Rich Freese recently told PW that he understands the current tension between publishers and libraries. “There has been more change in the last three years of my career than in the previous 27, and there is more ahead,” he says. “As long as everyone stays engaged, we’ll find a path.”

Meanwhile, there is the possibility of turning the library hold list into a revenue-generator. Affiliate links are becoming more and more common, with some allowing users to order the book from their local bookstore, which enables patrons who don’t want to wait for the e-book to buy the book on the library site. New players like Bilbary have been striking deals with libraries, with a percentage of sales going to the library.


Is this onslaught of new players just adding to the confusion in the marketplace for libraries? Competition is supposed to be good—but in the short term, are all the moving parts of the current library e-book market getting overly complicated?

“I think the business models make everything more complex than it needs to be,” says Polanka. “But the fact that we have more vendors, I think that’s good, because we all want options.” Coming from an academic background, where digital rules, Polanka says libraries are used to dealing with multiple vendors, and it is up to libraries to make good decisions about which platforms to go with. The danger in terms of popular e-books for public libraries, however, lies in the complexity for the user: just how many plug-ins and systems and steps should a casual reader be expected to navigate just to get an e-book?

“That’s a definite concern,” Polanka says. “And it’s not fair to the user. In a fair world, everyone would have the same content and you could download to any device. But that’s not the way it is—for example, Kindle is only available with Overdrive. You cannot direct download to Kindle from any other vendors. If you want to offer Kindle, you need to go to Overdrive.”

This problem of exclusivity was highlighted just before this year’s ALA conference, in June, when Penguin announced its pilot program with 3M (after leaving Overdrive because of its Kindle partnership), a development that raised the specter of libraries needing to sign up with competing vendors to offer titles from different publishers.

“I think there’s a lot of hopefulness this can improve, and I’m sure it can improve,” says Wolven when asked about the complexity of library e-book lending. “How far, and how quickly, is the question.”

Wolven also acknowledges the value added by vendors in the library e-book space. “If you look at the roles played by Overdrive or 3M or Baker & Taylor, or those entering this field, they are performing a service. If they don’t exist, the costs of what they’re doing must be borne by the libraries themselves, setting up their own servers to hold this content and distribute it, or the publishers have to provide that kind of infrastructure and libraries will then have to deal with multiple publishers. So, there is a real service there, much like book jobbers.”

But the real question may be whether the fears of the big six—mainly, that e-book borrowing will harm e-book sales—are making e-book lending more difficult than it needs to be. “That’s one of the things [the ALA working group] has spent a good deal of time exploring,” Wolven says. “How much of all this is inherently part of the nature of e-books, and how much of it is needlessly complex or worrying because of business terms?” In pressing its case, ALA is largely relying on arguments that library users—bolstered by recent studies by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and from Library Journal—are publishers’ best customers, avid readers and advocates for literature, and that libraries offer a great discovery outlet.

It’s been a tough sell.

“I think they’d all like to be working with libraries,” says Downing, when asked about the reticence of the big six. “I think they’ve got to figure out a way that the library market remains part of their business instead of, as far as they are concerned, cannibalizing their businesses. And no amount of feel-good stories about the power of library users being book buyers and all that is going to convince them. Some of them just aren’t going to do business with libraries unless it’s on very different terms.”


Given the rapid rise and popularity of e-books, it’s understandable that libraries would pursue them aggressively for their patrons. But as the big six have resisted, there is a growing feeling among librarians that the e-book issue as it is currently framed may be taking up a little too much oxygen.

“I think it is good that ALA is engaged in this conversation,” says R. David Lankes, a professor at the Information School at Syracuse University. “I like that this isn’t ‘oh, poor librarians, we’ll just wait in the corner until you give us some scraps.’ What I think you’re seeing now is that people are tired of waiting. And there’s this nice edge of librarian power coming out. The conversation is moving from, ‘e-books are crucial to the future of libraries but we’ll just have to wait to see,’ to ‘we’re either going to build our own thing, or we’re going to figure something else out.’ ”

Indeed, libraries have been doing just that. In Douglas County, Colo., the library, supported by its leadership and community, built its own e-book capability, investing in the technology necessary to hold files and securely lend them to its patrons. That model has now become the basis for a new e-book business—Bibliotecha—with the help of Monique Sendze, the associate director of information technology, who helped pioneer the Douglas County program, coming on board.

Recently, Califa, a consortium of 220 public libraries in California, announced its own “open” e-book initiative using the Douglas County model. The libraries have purchased Adobe Content Server software, are looking at hosting options and other support, and are negotiating with publishers.

Nationally, the Internet Archive has built e-book capability through its Open Library initiative, a consortium of participating libraries that send their books to the Internet Archive to be scanned. The physical copy is then sealed in a shipping container for legal reasons, and the digital file can be made available for lending, one user at a time, just like a physical lend. The Digital Public Library of America, meanwhile, a groundbreaking collaborative effort among libraries nationwide, is still working out its plan, but promises to start something in April 2013.

Can libraries really form their own DIY e-book capability? Not only can they, Lankes says, they should. “I’m very much in that camp,” Lankes emphasizes. “My camp is, if you think e-books are important, then now’s the time to build it.”

If anything has become clear over the past months of conversations, it is that the immediate questions surrounding e-book lending are just the tip of the digital iceberg—the larger questions are beneath the surface, questions that go to the very future of the public library. Libraries definitely want to provide popular frontlist e-book titles and are willing to work with partners who can meet their needs. But in a digital age where commercial ventures will increasingly fulfill that need, whether by lending, renting, or selling e-titles cheaply, for many readers, are popular frontlist e-books the dream public libraries should be chasing with their checkbooks?

Polanka recalls the challenge facing librarians from search engines: “People used to call us from bars and pubs, and we would look stuff up for them. With smartphones, we lost that battle. But we transitioned from that, and as content transitions, I am confident we will find a way to transition, too.” Polanka cites programs at libraries for career counseling as an example, and libraries that have seized on the so-called “maker” movement. “Why can’t libraries bring the community in and help them create their own books, poetry, art, or multimedia projects?” she says. “The library can be that local, collaborative space, maybe even provide server space to host things. Some libraries want to become publishers. Why not?”

Lankes agrees. “Libraries are waking up and realizing that their job is not necessarily just collecting stuff from outside to bring to the community,” he says, “but to collect the knowledge, wisdom, writings, materials, and creative output of their communities, and to broadcast that to the world.”