In a blog post this week, OverDrive CEO Steve Potash said he was proud of some of the “incremental gains” made in the library e-book market in 2020, but insisted that the work of establishing “fair, flexible, and reasonable terms” for libraries and schools to acquire and lend digital content is far from over.

“What began as a single model for e-books 20 years ago is constantly evolving,” Potash writes, adding that OverDrive’s ongoing advocacy efforts on behalf of libraries “are even more critical now given how the pandemic is impacting schools and public libraries. “Last year we saw meaningful progress with dozens of publishers enabling more affordable options for acquiring rights to their collection,” Potash writes. “But we are still searching for the Holy Grail access model.”

After a 2019 in which the major publishers appeared to be retreating from the library e-book market—marked by new restrictions and price increases by some publishers, concern over the growing number of Amazon exclusives, and Macmillan’s unpopular decision to embargo new release e-book titles in libraries—the pandemic in 2020 prompted many publishers to relax pricing and embrace more flexibility in licensing digital content. The result, librarians and vendors say, has been a surge in digital lending with OverDrive's 2020 digital lending levels up more than 33% over 2019.

Among the various models now in play, Potash noted:

"Concurrent Use: Metered Access,” in which libraries and schools can license a bundle of loans that can be used concurrently to meet high demand, and that do not expire. For example, in his post Potash cited a library’s purchase of 100 loans of the Recorded Books audiobook of the Bridgerton Series, The Duke and I and a school licensing Lerner Publishing’s Forgotten Bones, Uncovering a Slave Cemetery to 100 students.

"Simultaneous Use Catalogs" are also growing, Potash reported, with offerings ranging from “$60 for an entire month of simultaneous use access for a romance novel” to a few hundred dollars for a year of access. "Cost per Circ (CPC)" offerings have also seen increased usage, as well as “Lucky Day" or “Skip the Line” programs, which can be customized by libraries (for example, the Loudoun County Public Library’s “7-Day Hot Picks” program) and which generally offer shorter loan periods to reduce wait times for popular titles.

Last year we saw meaningful progress with dozens of publishers enabling more affordable options for acquiring rights to their collection.

Meanwhile, librarians suggested to PW that the “Holy Grail” for digital lending already exists. And though elusive, it isn’t nearly as mystical as calling it a holy grail makes it sound.

“The model closest to perfect is ownership,” says Michael Blackwell, Director of St. Mary's County Library in Maryland and an organizer of the ReadersFirst coalition. In other words, Blackwell explains, a regime in which libraries can buy digital files and circulate them fairly, not unlike print books, under some sort of “digital right of first sale.” Failing that unlikely scenario, Blackwell acknowledges that flexibility is the key for libraries—a point that librarians had been pressing with publishers for years, largely without success, until the pandemic forced more publishers to experiment in 2020.

“I hope Mr. Potash will join in advocating for models that will include some permanent access option, without which libraries will never be able to build sustainable long-term digital collections,” Blackwell told PW. “At the very least, we need multiple models at point-of-license, including a perpetual license option coupled with metered or other models, perhaps coupled with a subscription model of some kind on publisher backlists. Metered options should be based on the number of circulations and not a time period. Librarians need models that best allow them to make the most efficient use of our limited funding and constant re-licensing will never do that.”

ALA Senior Director for Public Policy and Government Relations Alan Inouye told PW he appreciates “the broadening range of business models available to libraries” outlined in Potash’s post, and agreed with Potash that the digital library market is not where it needs to be. “I do envision multiple models will be needed to support libraries effectively," Inouye told PW. "But while there are a few promising developments, there is much opportunity for engagement and work to be done with the publishing ecosystem. And of course the issue of pricing remains."

Meanwhile, public awareness of the issues libraries face is also growing. Last month, a new nonprofit, the Library Futures Institute officially launched, chartered to advocate for for a “technology-positive future” for libraries—including broader access to e-books and other digital content.

And this week, digital advocacy group Fight for the Future rolled out a new online campaign “Who Can Get Your Book,” which highlights equity and access issues in the digital library market.

The campaign offers authors and publishers a letter grade, granting one point for each equitable decision in how a book is released. For example, Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime receives a letter grade of D, based on the memoir’s lack of availability in audiobook format due to an exclusive with Amazon’s Audible—as well as restrictive licensing agreements for the e-book.

“Publishing’s ecosystem has become incredibly complicated, obscuring who is being most harmed by the dog-eat-dog war between monopolistic Amazon and the few remaining large publishers," said Lia Holland Campaigns & Communications Director with Fight for the Future, in a release. "This tool empowers all of us to finally recognize what is going on, and demand better.”

After an eventful 2020, the coming year is shaping up to be another potential watershed year for digital content in libraries. Among developments on the library community’s radar: Amazon Publishing is said to be in discussions with the Digital Public Library of America to make its titles available to libraries; A lawsuit filed by five major publishers seeks to shut down the Internet Archive’s book scanning and lending program; The Big Five publishers are about to become the Big Four, as Penguin Random House is expected to finish its acquisition of Simon & Schuster; and after a report delivered last year, antitrust proposals for the digital market could finally surface in Congress.

Meanwhile, armed with new data from 2020, a year in which digital library lending and consumer trade book sales grew by healthy margins, Potash says he remains committed to his "quest" for fair business solutions that will work in everyone’s interest.

“This quest will continue until we provide libraries and schools access to expansive catalogs with sustainable and scalable use models,” Potash writes. “The challenge for this balancing act requires that the prevailing business models are also well championed and embraced by authors and publishers.”