E-book lending has been a thorny issue for libraries, but a panel at Digital Book World yesterday moderated by Library Journal’s Josh Hadro suggested perhaps there really wasn’t much of an issue. Despite Hadro’s introduction, which quoted a recent feasibility study about e-books in which librarians’ expressed deep anxieties, and a recent talk from Ann Arbor, MI, librarian Eli Neiburger entitled "Libraries are Screwed,” the panel was decidedly upbeat. Publishers love libraries, the one-book/one lend model works great, and the potential for growth is enormous. But all agreed that the conversation the panel kicked off needs to continue.
So what is the current state of e-books in libraries? New York Public Library's Christopher Platt noted what librarians at the recent ALA Midwinter noted, that e-reading is surging in popularity and demand in libraries is on the rise. NYPL had a record-breaking 36,000 e-book checkouts in December, but that number still represented less than 1% of its total checkouts. “Current content is king,” Platt added, noting that some publishers, and big titles are still not in the mix, such as Keith Richards‘ recent biography Life, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “You try explaining why to a patron,“ Platt said. “All they know is that the library failed them.”
Random House's Ruth Liebmann quickly sought to counter the perception that publishers were resisting libraries' e-book overtures. “A library book does not compete with a sale,” Liebmann said. “A library book is a sale.” She said that publishers wanted librarians at the table, and said libraries not only have social power, they have economic power in “the same ballpark as indy bookstores.” And, they “never send books back."
The two vendors on the panel offered the rosiest view of library e-book lending. Baker & Taylor’s George Coe, a 30-year veteran in the library business, noted that public library book sales accounted for around $850 million annually. Coe was bullish on the data e-books can generate, allowing libraries to better allocate their stressed budgets and for both libraries and publishers to see exactly what’s moving and shift their purchases accordingly.
It was OverDrive head Steve Potash, however, whose company handles the vast majority of public library lends, who sounded the most positive note. Citing “hockey stick” growth, he said the notion that there was a problem with libraries and e-books was a misperception. “There is no problem,” he said flatly. The one book/one lend model is “perfect,” and just because a couple of publishers “don’t get it,” doesn’t change the fact that 99% of them do. He praised libraries as a great way for publishers to reach readers, saying that a book library OPAC was far better marketing than “some blogger.” In fact, Potash said, for all the marketing libraries do for publishers’ books, "publishers should pay them."
Through all the upbeat talk, however, the panel, skirted perhaps the biggest issue for libraries in the e-book world, an issue discussed more deeply at the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego: libraries do more than circulate frontlist books and bestsellers. They build collections, curate and preserve, and their work is only partly based on the kind of circulation data that can now be measured by vendors. Whether or not a library can meet demand for popular works like Keith Richards or Jonathan Franzen is only part of the story. The fact remains that the ability of libraries to collect as they have always done, to buy materials, own them, keep them for posterity, lend them, to keep and make available a cultural record long after the commercial viability of a title has waned, is not currently part of the e-book world, where books are licensed and access is mediated by third party vendors. That is a significant shift: after all, there would be no Google Books without the collection-building work of libraries.
Nevertheless, the panel yesterday offerd an excellent discussion, an important step in keeping an important conversation going. Asked by Hadro to give and “exit poll” parting thought, the panelists noted the importance of talking. “We welcome you,” Platt said. “Let’s have a conversation.” Liebmann suggested that conversation continue in June at the ALA annual meeting in New Orleans.