A Thursday afternoon panel was officially named "The Power of Partnerships," but as moderator Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association suggested, it should have been called "E-books: The Continuing Saga."
Prices are still too high, and the user experience is "badly fragmented," Fiels said, among a host of additional unresolved issues: "Publishers still feel threatened, and there is a large 500-pound gorilla in the room called Amazon," Fiels observed, along with issues connected to the rise self-publishing and user-generated content, ownership vs. subscription, and thorny preservation issues.
To start, Baker & Taylor's Michael Bills noted that publishers seem to be lobbing models into libraries with abandon, hoping something will make sense, though often this just leads to confusion. But it was BiblioBoard's Andrew Roskill who took the most direct line of criticism. He noted three issues that need to be better addressed: sustainability, reaching underserved communities, and improving user experience.
"On the user experience side, the bar is no longer set by us," he said, but by companies like Amazon and Apple. "The fact of the matter is that if we want to have a hope of reaching not the current generation, but the next generation, we need to do a lot of work in that area."
Representing libraries, Boston Public Library's Michael Colford, and Veronda Pitchford, from the Illinois consortium RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Library System) offered a more ground-floor view of the situation. "I really want to see something integrated for library patrons," Colford said. "What I don't want is another platform," adding that while he was happy to buy e-books from anyone, "once you hit the discovery, availability, holds management, checkout, and the bookshelf and reading experience—I want that to be one thing."
Pitchford, whose consortium serves 1,300 member libraries across the state, urged more work with consortia like hers. "We have such reach," she said, suggesting that libraries could be a strong beta test ground for e-books in communities, and posited that those library e-book users would become retail customers, too—a win/win.
"I think in the past all of us have a history of applying print solutions to these digital problems," Pitchford said. "And it is time to just deconstruct the model and look at how we can create new models to deliver content to communities."
HarperCollins head of sales Josh Marwell, who pioneered the 26-lend model for e-books in 2011, says he viewed the state of library e-books as half-full, and stressed that library e-book sales have been steadily rising. "We're actually making progress," he said. "I think a lot of the issues raised here today do need to be resolved, but we are making progress."
When it came to addressing obstacles, one of the biggest—price—was discussed. But the panel mostly agreed that making the e-book experience easier—both for libraries managing their budgets and collections, and especially for users accessing them—was the key challenge, which Biblioboard's Andrew Roskill addressed head-on.
"Librarians don't like to disappoint people," Roskill said. The result being that to meet demand they license more copies of e-books priced at five to 15 times retail price, which they then, eventually, have to re-license. That's both an unsustainable model from a budget perspective, he said, but also an ineffective growth strategy because it serves only hardcore library users, rather than appealing to and bringing in new users. He urged publishers to think outside their comfort zone and to see libraries as valuable marketing partners.
"To be perfectly frank, on the publisher side the biggest obstacle is inertia," Roskill said. "Library sales as a percentage of their total revenues is not that big, so I don't think the big five executives have much incentive to stick their neck out and try something different. It seems like after four or five years in we are still talking about [e-books] as if it is a big beta project. And you know, the rest of the world has moved ahead. Frankly, it is time for us to try something different."