As librarians gather for ALA Midwinter, there is much talk of progress in the library e-book realm. But in my column last month, I reached out to some librarians to get their take on things, and found considerable frustration—and one prominent complaint: lack of deeper experimentation.

Experimentation is happening. Some publishers, such as Sourcebooks, are frequently testing new library lending and revenue models. And distributors, like OverDrive, are trying to capture the dynamics of library e-book lending with their Big Library Read program. In Douglas County, Colo., the libraries have been in the press for their work developing and testing their own e-book lending infrastructure.

But consider this: a recent snap poll of 646 attendees at an American Library Association webinar showed that 144 favored the 26-loan cap of the HarperCollins model; 122 favored the two-year lease being tested by Simon & Schuster; 100 leaned toward the one-year lease of Penguin. This, however, is the most telling number: 280 chose not to respond at all.

One User, One Copy?

So what does true experimentation look like? Here is an example: earlier this year, the Westchester Library System, a consortium of 38 public libraries in New Yorkstate, has become the first library system in the country to sign on with a company called Total Boox, an Israeli e-book service that launched earlier in 2013, with a “pay by the page” reading model the company touts as revolutionary.

Terry Kirchner, the executive director of WLS, met Yoav Lorch, the president of Total Boox, at the 2012 International Digital Publishing Forum in New York City. “As luck would have it, we were sitting next to each other during one of the events and we just started to talk about the challenges faced by libraries in the e-book field,” Kirchner says.

The total Boox e-book collection went live on the WLS Web site on September 23, giving the system’s cardholders simultaneous access to about 20,000 titles—a modest collection, perhaps, but you have to start somewhere.

The program works like this: WLS created a Total Boox account and funded it with $5,000. Patrons interested in using the collection can register their library card numbers, establish a PIN code, and then download for free any title to a tablet (the system is currently oriented toward Android and iOS tablets). The books can be read online or offline, but either way the reading is metered, with the library paying for pages read by their patrons.

Pages cost a proportion of the price of the book. For example, if a 100-page book costs $10 and a reader reads 10 pages, or 10% of the book, then the library would pay 10% of the price, or $1. Every patron’s reading has to be paid for—if five patrons read from the same book, then the library has to pay five times. But the books do not have a loan expiration; they can remain on a patron’s device. And once paid for—that is, once the library has paid for the cost of one copy—the library has essentially purchased perpetual access to that content, similar to the popular Freegal music service offered by Library Ideas.

“The more that I learned about Total Boox, the more it seemed that its model of providing simultaneous use and of consumption-based costs had potential as a new platform for libraries,” Kirchner says. In the first month 533 users registered, 3,036 titles (2,003 unique titles) were downloaded, and the library paid out $376. Total Boox provides the library system with cost projections in order to help it stay within budget.

“All in all, we’re off to a good beginning. Now the goal is to expand awareness of the product and the titles contained within its collections,” Kirchner says. “Over time, as usage grows, we’ll have a clearer picture of anticipated consumption rates and costs based on the e-book titles and types that are made available.”

Can “metered” reading succeed? Maybe, maybe not—the thing is, libraries can’t know what works until they try, and with Total Boox in “growth mode,” Kirchner says this is an exciting chance “to create a high-quality library customer experience,” and, at the very least, to learn along the way.

Multiple Choice

Lorch, the president of Total Boox, is convinced that a multi-user, simultaneous access model with payment only for the portion of a book read—and without an expiration date—can work, because it is the most consumer friendly model out there. “We do away with the one-copy, one-user limitation, which is a source of frustration for patrons and librarians,” Lorch says.

Lorch is not alone in that belief—other models in the public library market, such as Library Ideas’ Freading, Ebrary’s public library collection, Gale’s Virtual Reference Library, portions of OverDrive’s collection, also provide simultaneous access to multiple users. Westchester offers Freading and OverDrive already. Valobox, in the United Kingdom, has a business similar to Total Boox’s.

And some publishes have shown interest: Total Boox has deals with Elsevier, Microsoft Press, F+W Media, Berrett-Koehler, Sourcebooks, Other Press, Gibbs-Smith, Red Wheel-Weiser, and Constable-Robinson, among others. There is no content from the Big Five publishers for popular, bestselling trade titles, however, although Lorch says he has had talks with them.

“The Total Boox collections are very strong in nonfiction, especially technology handbooks and science books,” Kirchner says. “It’s too soon to tell, but I’m curious to see if having access to these e-books will reduce how many interlibrary loan requests we need to place for titles not available in our member libraries’ collections.”

For libraries, Lorch says the Total Boox model also eliminates the uncertainty around collection development, with public library book budgets in the digital realm often tilting toward costly, popular bestsellers at the expense of nonfiction books, such as how-to, business, or photography titles.

Can the model work for fiction? We may not know for some time. Lorch says he did not think the Big Five would make any blockbusters available soon, but he believes they will, eventually. After all, every time a reader turns a page, a publisher is going to make money.

For publishers and libraries alike, meanwhile, the company also offers another valuable feature: analytics. Total Boox can provide reports not only on downloads but aggregate pages read for a given title. It can also tell which books people have started, then abandoned, while anonymizing data as much as possible. “The checkout parameter is not the best parameter to evaluate the library,” Lorch says. “There should be a deeper parameter.”

A Deeper Dive

Westchester is the only library system on board so far, but Lorch says he hopes to partner with an established distributor and use its marketing and sales force. “We say, give them everything you can and then let’s find out what the patrons want to read,” Lorch says.

Why not? One can certainly be skeptical of the concept of metered reading, but can it really be any more unnatural than imposing a relic of the print era—one copy, one user—onto the digital age? And who better to experiment with than libraries? Librarians have been among the most trusted stewards of culture for centuries. They are the most proven and fervent allies of authors and publishers. And yet, since the advent of e-books, the relationship between publishers and libraries has been clouded with distrust and frustration.

That’s regrettable. The world of digital reading demands experimentation, and libraries are the perfect laboratory. No one is more willing to help publishers find the right formula than librarians.