Library e-books have come a long way in recent years, with all of the Big Five publishers now in the library e-book market. But with basic access now achieved, what should come next? ReadersFirst, the nonprofit library advocacy group wants to know—so they are asking. This week, the organization released a new survey for librarians to get a sense of what kinds of e-content business models libraries really want, and how the market can improve.

In recent years, e-book sales in the consumer space have been tailing off, and e-book use in libraries is no longer showing the kind of “hockey-stick” growth (as OverDrive CEO Steve Potash use to put it)—but make no mistake e-book use in libraries is still very much on the rise.

“Among our ReadersFirst working group and a number of libraries that have spoken to us, increases of 20% to 30% a year are not uncommon, with digital audiobook use often increasing even more rapidly,” says ReadersFirst’s Michael Blackwell, Director of St Mary's County Library. And, access to e-books has also improved, he notes, with many vendors adopting APIs to improve the experience, for example, and finding and getting e-books and digital content generally easier than it was 4 or 5 years ago.

But, he adds, there is still much room for improvement—especially when it comes to how libraries purchase and manage their digital collections.

“Publishers’ business models, when coupled with library budgets, seem to me to be the biggest issue, at least for public libraries,” Blackwell told PW. Whether under a metered model (26 lends, for example, or a one-year limit) or a perpetual access model, where libraries pay a higher price for unlimited one user/one copy lends, the e-book market remains inefficient for libraries—the library ends up buying "lends" or "digital copies" it doesn't need after demand peaks, Blackwell explains.

“If I could see only one thing for 2018, it would be for publishers to set up flexible business models and for library e-book vendors to adjust their apps or web interfaces so that libraries could take full advantage of that flexibility,” Blackwell says. “Offer us a variety of ways we can get titles, and let us choose the one that suits us best for a particular title: traditional one user, metered, simultaneous access for a certain number of circulations, and maybe even a full scale pay-per-use.”

Blackwell says he is still excited about the HarperCollins’ announcement this summer that it would make a portion of its backlist titles available in a (sort of) pay-per-use model. “This willingness to experiment is commendable,” he says. “We in libraries want to be fair to publishers. We rely on them, of course, to provide our service. Let’s work out a range of options, ensuring that publishers and authors are fairly paid while offering libraries the greatest opportunity to use our limited budgets to get the best return for our patrons.”

What would you like to see in the library e-books space? Take the survey and have your voice heard.