The Follett/Baker & Taylor Virtual Publisher Summit, held September 17, included a panel discussion about the evolving state of e-books and digital content in the public and school library spheres. Representatives from both companies, as well as librarians in the field, weighed in on what they are seeing. “The Shift to Digital” was facilitated by Britten Follett, executive v-p for Follett School Solutions, and dug deeper into issues of demand, usage, and pricing and circulation models, and how those have changed since the pandemic.

Kathy Paur, v-p of content sales for Follett School Solutions, said that conversations have “shifted dramatically” for her teams and for internal groups at the company because since the pandemic, schools that “never truly looked at digital before were forced overnight to look at digital” to begin remote instruction. Customers new to digital needed “not only the materials, but a better understanding of what’s out there,” she said, and the myriad solutions available, from unlimited access to a 26-week period checkout to 18 months to 24 months. Those newer customers also needed guidance on figuring out how to use the materials as well as devices.

Similarly, Scott Crawford, v-p of digital and software products for Baker & Taylor, said that the company has seen “a huge increase in demand for all of our digital services,” including all the software platforms that Baker & Taylor offers, and repeated Kochar’s data of a 40% increase in digital activity and a 50% increase in digital circulation. Crawford noted that one area that has seen “huge increases in sales” is existing customers who participate in B&T’s community share program—where the school district and public library partner in a digital landscape. “The sales that we’ve seen on the public library side for those clients is up dramatically,” he said. “More so than the rest of the digital customer base.”

Lisa Taylor, director of Sumter County Library System in central Florida, offered a snapshot of what’s happening on the ground in a public library setting. Her library community includes The Villages, the largest retirement community in the country. Sumter County’s libraries have been fully open at 50% capacity since May 4 and Taylor says that “65% of our customers are over the age of 65.” She spoke about how the pandemic has changed her libraries into “more of an e-content environment. Even though our customers are older, for the past five to seven years, we’ve had a very large and dedicated e-book base for the 120,000 size of our community.”

But over that same time frame, she mentioned a different type of shift. “As a public library, if any of you have attended a conference in the past five or seven years, all of the topics were making library as place, and almost moving away from the culture of reading. It was a culture of programming, a culture of jobs, a culture of all of those things that require a place.” Now she sees customers moving back to that culture of reading. “I mean that more than just a book on the shelf,” she explained. “They want to speak to an author; they want an e-book and then they want that e-book to tell them more about that same author. They want to talk to their librarians about what they read.”

Taylor says e-audio and e-books have always been the main categories of digital content at her libraries, but during the pandemic there’s been significantly more accessing of digital magazines, streaming music, and video. In terms of circulation, “We’re probably adding about 10,000 more print circs each month that we’re open,” she said. “It’s definitely lower than prior to the pandemic, but that margin of uptick for e-books has remained in place, even with print circs coming back up.” She says that’s an indication of customers’ preference for a print and digital culture. “They want more of this. And I think they want libraries to get into that culture of reading more than being everything to everybody.”

For a look at school libraries in the pandemic era, Fran Glick, coordinator of the school library program and digital resources for Baltimore County Public Schools in Towson, Md., weighed in. Hers is the 25th largest district in the country with a little over 115,000 students, who returned to school this fall with a fully remote model. Glick said that her district began one-to-one implementation (meaning each student has a digital device) back in 2013, so her students and teachers are already familiar with accessing and using digital content. The district had already done a lot of other digital implementation work that included adopting an equity policy, “making sure that all students would have access to the content that was required for learning,” she said. That point was “critical,” Glick noted, to her district being able to make the shift to effective e-learning when the pandemic hit. “Our students had already become accustomed to utilizing resources in our learning management system,” she said, “so, even our youngest learners had facility around how to navigate that.”

Digital Budgets

Panelists offered insights into how budget dollars are allocated for digital content. Crawford sees the trend of customers thinking more about digital in light of budget constraints. According to the latest B&T survey work, Crawford reported that 53% of respondents are expecting or have been given a budget reduction; 25% of those that responded are expecting no impact and 22% are unsure. “So overall—meaning physical, digital, and database, all mixed in—it’s not a great story,” he said. “Specifically on the digital front we are hearing good news from various clients that there’s more money being moved into digital. In some cases, it does come out of the print funding, in some cases it comes from other parts of the budget. But overall, we are seeing and expecting more money to be flowing into digital resources.”

Taylor pointed out that her budgets involve “buckets of money in piles that can’t be moved around.” So, when the demand for e-books increased, “we weren’t able to move as fast as we wanted. For this coming year we are making the budget more flexible to buy more e-content, possibly up to double what we spent this year: for us, probably another $100,000 this year in e-books alone.” This will result in slightly less money allocated for print books, but “we’re a big partner with Baker &Taylor in the lease program for print.”

Her customers “want what they want, when they want it,” Taylor said. “A paperback at the beach, a digital audiobook for the car, an e-book to read in bed; they want it all.” As a result, she said that for an “A-list group of authors (e.g. Patterson, Baldacci) we buy every format that we can. Twenty-five percent of our customers will put a hold on every one of those formats to see which one comes in first.”

Glick said that allocations for her district’s forthcoming budget are conditional on whether the schools will be open for in-person instruction and the librarians will be back in school circulating physical books. “The one thing we know we can deliver at this time is e-content,” she said. “I also am really sensitive to the impact of not addressing the print collection,” Glick added. “We will fall behind quickly if we don’t continue to invest in some degree in the important work of collection development.” On that front, she added, “We’ve redefined collection development over the past six or seven years in school libraries, particularly because of the one-to-one, which requires a certain investment in e-book content.”

Making the most of her schools’ e-book content involves discovery, according to Glick. “Our library community is doing some really innovative work on marketing e-books,” she said. “It’s not the same as when a student walks into a physical library. When I walk into the public library, anything I see on display is where I go. It’s what my eye is drawn to. So, we’re really having to rethink the marketing and promotion of the digital content.”

Follett agreed on that point, saying, “I think prior to the pandemic that was the reason we didn’t see e-book usage to the extent that we had previously anticipated e-book usage growing. Because especially for the little ones, it’s out of sight, out of mind. They want to walk into the library, they want to grab that picture book, take it over to the beanbag and read it right then and there. They don’t want to have to pull out their laptop.” Now that students are pulling out their laptops every day in remote learning situations, Follett said, “All of a sudden those books are right in front of you, just in a different manner.”

E-book Usage Rights

“Our customers aren’t as familiar with the whole publishing business model, so they want to know why any e-book is only available to one person at a time,” Taylor said. “For their A-list favorite authors, the New York Times bestsellers using a single-use model, customers are willing to wait for that and they go on that long holds list.” In the meantime, they fill in with midlist books, magazines, and other digital media. “We have not purchased a physical book on CD in two and a half years,” Taylor said, “But they still will check them out if they have a CD player in their car.”

Taylor cited other examples of how her purchasing patterns morph alongside changes in the library culture and the needs of her patrons. “In the previous model of the public library we might have purchased several different platforms to try to get the breadth and depth of a collection that we have in print to serve customers,” she said. “Up to this point, customers have pretty much been with us on that. They’ll download five or six different apps and they’ll manage those, which becomes a full-time job keeping track of where your holds are.” As for the future, Taylor believes that such juggling may become “a barrier to service” for customers who are now more used to the way they can access things on Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu. “It’s not as easy to use our products as it is to use Netflix or Kindle. And customers, they don’t really get it, nor do they want to get it. They want it now. They don’t really care what our problems are with getting it.”

Taylor pointed to some of the challenges that figure into a fully digital collection. “For us librarians to switch to a completely online product, we might lose something if we can’t get it on digital. And it’s not so much the cost or the single-use match, but it’s the single use and the expiration date all at the same time. For us for the long view, how do we manage that?” She uses James Patterson as an example. “We could fill an entire library with just back catalog of Patterson and there’s new readers all the time. They come in and want that complete run. So, to convert all of that into e-books and manage a holds list as well as new titles and that niche market, that becomes very challenging.”

Paur noted similar challenges in school libraries. “Schools want to get the newest Dav Pilkey book and they want unlimited access and they just want to buy that one copy,” she said. Glick suggests a new approach to surmounting some of the confusion. “One of the things that might be a creative or collective solution for this community is identifying some different licensing models,” she said. “We’ve started to experiment with some of those termed books. We used to avoid them. We’ve been thinking, do we need to own that book forever? Is its popularity and currency in the moment worth shifting? One of the things that we tend to do in education is we want to buy things that last forever, that never wear out, and that we all use for the next 25 years, whether that’s a good idea or not. So, we tend to be very conservative in what we spend and how we spend it. I think that e-books are something that continue to mystify a lot of us because we’re not necessarily sure how to position them and how to define the return on investment.”

The visibility of print books makes them easier to track. “We didn’t really pay as much attention to our e-book usage,” Glick said. “With physical books, we saw them moving in and out of school, so we have evidence. E-books are kind of in the vapor, we don’t necessarily see their use. Now we’re monitoring it so that we can talk about return on investment. Right now e-books are our only usage. So that helps.”

Glick added that interoperability is another important consideration for what she’ll spend money on. “We want resources that will work inside multiple ecosystems,” she said. “For us, that’s a learning management system that’s a digital environment. We want to be able to take a link to something and put it somewhere else and have that seamless access that we know exists in the rights management. The operational functionality is important to us.”

When considering what a wish list model for purchase pricing and circulation pricing might look like, Follett’s perspective, Britten Follett said, is that “we have to build special systems within Destiny [the library management system] to manage all of the different models out there, so that it’s easier for you all to be able to manage it on the ground. Every day we’re doing that is a day that we’re not building the key features that our students are asking for. That’s a challenge.”

Taylor believes a mix of different platforms is sometimes best. “It’s hard to budget and plan for an expiring title,” she said. “But if it’s within a platform, like Baker & Taylor’s Access 360, where all the titles act the same, it’s a little bit easier. But if you’re in a platform where single use and multiple use reside in the same place and customers don’t understand that, it’s a challenge.” She said that each circulation model has positives and negatives. “With the pay per circ model, we’re going to pay for that circ even if a customer elects not to read it. We tend to go more towards the single use. You at least get more out of a title when you have access to it longer.

The same holds true for students, according to Glick. “Lots of kids are inspired to check something out and they may never read it, so we’ve paid for that access that is underutilized, and is something that we can’t control. I think some sort of simplification would be really great.” Everyone is conditioned now to pay one price to get as much of what appeals to us as we want, Glick noted. “I wonder if there’s some opportunity to think about that as more of a universal pricing structure with some guarantees that came with that universal access. I’m not necessarily sure how it would work at the school level, but it’s a consideration for sure.”

As for a dream solution, Taylor envisioned whether “we can creatively come up with a way that people can binge on books and reading just as easily as watching [TV and movies] and that it can be fair at all of us. I don’t want any author or any publisher not to make money. I’m a capitalist at heart, like everyone else. I know it’s going to be hard on the programmers and everybody in the scene, but I think with all of us working together to focus on building more readers and a culture of like-minded readers, that will benefit all of us.”