January 10, 2012

The problem with ebooks and libraries is that there should be no problem


According to a article concerning Ohio public libraries, it isn't readers that have the problem with ebooks at libraries.

One of the slower-burning arguments in the digital realm concerns the role of ebooks within the public library system. Much of this argument has centered around DRM use. Librarians and their patrons hate DRM. Publishers and writers reluctantly need it.

Part of this is the obvious issue over shelf-life. A physical book that is popular, perhaps a perennial favorite, will have to be replaced from time to time. The wear and tear of being a library book is substantial. This means additional sales for writers and publishers. If it is a very popular book, whether in the stacks or at the front of the library on display, the library might end up stocking multiple copies of that title to better serve the demand from readers. Again, boon for writers and publishers.

In the past, when libraries had better funding, this system was acceptable. Now though, when it comes to ebooks, they are finding it increasingly hard to stomach. Buying multiple copies of an ebook, or having to replace one that has been limited to a number of uses through DRM, is something that might not be in the budgets.

An article from the Ohio Times-Reporter that discusses this point:

“There are many copyright issues involved that have made it difficult to provide patrons with everything they want,” he points out. “For example, there are several publishing companies that are currently refusing to sell electronic versions of their titles for library use. HarperCollins will sell e-books to libraries, but they set a limit that their titles can only circulate 26 times. “

The issue with HarperCollins is somewhat old news, of course. (See our earlier report if you missed it.) But this article goes on to quote some very interesting statistics that hint at an upcoming crisis point. Solutions need to be arrived at. The following quote concerns the Ohio library system:

Before Christmas, the average daily usage at participating libraries was about 1,500 checkouts per day. After Christmas, usage rose to about 2,500 per day.

Yeah. We thought that should be in bold.

Part of the “hold your breath” of the DRM and ebooks in libraries conversation centered around the question of whether readers were going to adopt in a big way. A 66% increase in one state’s library system, and a figure like 2,500 checkouts per day, is a figure that librarians and publishers cannot ignore.

This of course takes us back to the original issue of use. An ebook obviously never falls apart. And without DRM a single copy can be duplicated for free. Add to the the equation the fact that libraries are working with the tattered vestiges of their former budgets and you have a serious issue.

Oh wait… It’s the same issue. The difference is that local and state level authorities have been cutting the budgets. That’s the reality: it’s the same old problem.

The bottom line? Publishers and libraries are going to have to sort out their differences if they want to keep all of these new readers.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.