Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston on a topic I follow closely: the state of the e-book market, and what libraries can expect going forward. During the q&a period, one librarian stood and asked what I found to be a telling question. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially he wanted to know: when exactly did publisher start to approach libraries on such adversarial terms?

I found the question revealing, because it underscored a beleaguered feeling I have found increasingly common among librarians who deal with e-books. Despite a marked improvement in publisher/library relations in recent years, and progress in the library e-book market, the librarians I spoke to in Boston sounded more concerned than ever about their e-book futures. Sure, securing basic access to e-books counts as progress compared to the alternative of no access at all. But the message I heard consistently from librarians in Boston was crystal clear: as it is currently set up, the library e-book market is too burdensome to manage, complex for users to navigate, and library e-book prices are too expensive to sustain.


The panel I spoke on was sponsored by the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG), an initiative launched five years ago to engage publishers on a range of digital issues (most prominently, of course, e-books). I’ve covered the group from the beginning, and from the start I’ve been impressed with the way the group has embraced its mission. The DCWG has defined the digital issues facing libraries broadly. More than just e-book access, the group is exploring the full range of what technology in libraries can achieve. The DCWG has also conducted its work with patience, which not only helped libraries overcome publisher resistance in securing basic access to popular trade e-books, but more importantly, has succeeded in opening unprecedented lines of communication between librarians and publishers.

As I told librarians from the stage in Boston, over the next two years they are going to need those lines of communication—and more patience. That’s because the e-book market today finds itself in a precarious position. Consumer e-book sales from the major houses are on the decline, falling steadily in recent quarters. In fact, 2015 annual e-book sales are on pace to post their first yearly decline since the Kindle kicked off the modern e-book era back in 2007.

Publishers say they are not overly concerned about the dip in e-book sales, suggesting the overall book market is finding its balance. Industry pundits, on the other hand, are pouncing. One commentator recently suggested the “destruction of the digital book market has already been set in motion, and nothing will stop the industry from collapsing.” Wow, okay.

Others see a rise in print sales as a sign that readers are being turned off by e-book technology—maybe, maybe not. The evidence we have so far suggests readers are using both print and digital formats, based on a range of factors. Still others note that the leveling off in e-book sales is to be expected for an industry that has matured, especially as prices tick up. That’s true enough. And of course, there is a universe of self-published content out there not counted in the stats (much of it free or low cost), competing for consumer attention.

From my perspective, it’s too early to say for sure how the e-book market will shake out. It’s still relatively new, and recent e-book history has been, to put it mildly, eventful. It was in November 2007 that the black-and-white Kindle broke the e-book market wide open (with bestsellers priced at $9.99). Just two years later, the iPad ushered in the tablet era—and the agency model for e-books, which led to a price-fixing suit in 2012, and two years of court-imposed e-book price discounting. With those sanctions now expired, all of the major publishers finalized new two-year distribution deals with Amazon in recent months, deals that give the publishers what they’ve long wanted—control over consumer e-book prices. And as expected, publishers have raised prices for popular, frontlist e-books.

But here’s the takeaway: for the first time in the e-book market’s short history, there are no major disruptions on the horizon. There is no game-changing device looming, like the iPad; no fundamental changes in the retail market, like the 2010 shift to the agency model; no negotiations with Amazon, at least for now; no court-imposed sanctions. And with no thumb on the scale, that means publishers are poised to get the clearest picture yet of consumer habits, their true demand for e-books (as well as for print), what prices work and don’t work, and the viability of new channels, such as subscription access and direct sales.

For libraries, however, that also means publishers are not going to be eager to experiment with new e-lending models. There may be tweaks around the edges, but major changes? Don’t hold your breath. For example, DCWG co-chair Carolyn Anthony told attendees in Boston that ALA officials had recently raised the idea with publishers of experimenting with a multiple-access model for some e-books. They were rebuffed.

Speak Up

At the end of the panel in Boston, DCWG officials asked librarians to share which issues were of paramount importance to them. Attendees did not hold back. Managing a catalog full of titles that expire on different terms is too cumbersome and inefficient, one said. Having to pay inflated prices for “perpetual access” to e-books libraries don’t care to keep forever is also a problem. And high e-book prices (sometimes four times the consumer price) are having a ripple effect throughout libraries’ collections—more money for digital means less for other formats. For users, long holds lists remain a frustration.

Though consumer e-book sales declined in 2015, e-book circulation in libraries is still on the upswing. OverDrive, the leading vendor facilitating library e-book lending, reported that total 2015 e-book circulation was up 19% over the previous year, and that 33 U.S. libraries reported e-book circulation above one million. But that is cold comfort, librarians say, as they wrestle with the complexities and costs of offering digital access alongside other formats.

“Despite recent gains in access to content, today’s library e-book experience is still inadequate to support robust reading,” wrote Michael Blackwell, a librarian at St. Mary’s County Library, on the ReadersFirst blog, just before the ALA Midwinter Meeting began. A coalition of some 300 libraries, ReadersFirst advocates for better e-book access. And Blackwell, who was in attendance in Boston, is among many librarians concerned about how libraries will serve readers under the restrictions currently imposed on library e-book lending. “It’s time for a change to multiple pricing models on the content most readers want,” he suggested, including “subscriptions with simultaneous user access for libraries, and a technologically simplified reading experience.”

For librarians, patience has so far been a virtue. And more patience is required. But that patience doesn’t mean silence. In fact, now, arguably more than ever, publishers and e-book vendors need to hear from librarians. With Amazon and Netflix swiftly redefining consumer expectations for accessing digital content, and all content increasingly competing for user attention on a single screen, observers say it would be a mistake for libraries to merely accept the current restrictions placed on library e-books as the way things have to be, lest libraries be relegated to a plateau of mediocrity as emerging commercial services pass them by.

In Boston, librarians spoke clearly: securing access to e-books was an important step. But establishing a sustainable e-book service that works for everyone is the next step. And it’s a big one.