It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since I wrote a blogpost titled “eBooks – Is Now The Time?“. In it I argued that ‘now’ (er, 2010) was most definitely the time to offer eBooks in libraries despite some opposition. Of course, I perhaps (naively) didn’t realise the extent to which the industry would be resistant to the introduction of ebooks free of charge in public libraries. And resistant they have certainly been.
There has been some pretty intense lobbying by the publishing industry on the availability of ebooks in public libraries for loan and at no charge, arguing that this does serious damage to the industry. In fact, read what some say within the industry and you would be forgiven for thinking that free ebook loans would be the final nail in the coffin for the publishing industry. Take, for example, the words of Richard Mollett from the Publishers Association:
“When it’s as easy to buy a book as to click a button and borrow one, a lot more people are going to take the borrowing option. That has serious implications for authors and their royalties, booksellers and publishers.”
There are many ways in which this is patently absurd. Borrowing is not the same as purchasing. An ebook will only be available to the borrower for a limited period (normally around three weeks) before it will expire from the device and return to the library collection (they can’t renew them, so if they need to borrow it again they go to the back of the reservation queue). I fail to see how the restricted borrowing of an item (provided it is effectively restricted) could possibly have a significant impact on the purchase of books. I am fortunate to be able to borrow ebooks from my local public library but, ultimately, I tend to prefer to purchase books, both to add to my collection and to refer back to at a later date. Indeed, I even separate out my purchases of print and electronic. If it is an author whose works I collect and value, I will buy the print edition. If it is a book that I am ambivalent about or not by an author whose works I collect, then I will often buy the electronic version. There is a subtle distinction between what I borrow, what I buy in print and what I buy in ebook format.
But there is another reason why Mollett’s statement is so absurd. There are many small, rural communities across the country that have very few local amenities. They may have a post office (although that is increasingly less likely), maybe a small shop and possibly a library (again, increasingly less likely). They are not likely to have a bookshop. So, for people in these communities, it is technically easier to borrow a book from the local library than to make a trip to town to visit a bookshop. Has this situation had an adverse, direct impact on booksellers and publishers? Pretty unlikely I’d say. People in these communities haven’t stopped buying books simply because they can more conveniently borrow one for free from the local library. I’d argue, in fact, that they buy books much the same as everyone else does.
The key, and worrying, thing is that publishers really do seem to have fallen out of love with libraries. Imagine if libraries didn’t exist (in some places that’s probably not too hard). Imagine if someone suddenly came up with the bright idea that the public should be able to borrow books for free. Given the response to the lending of ebooks, what do you think the reaction of the publishing industry would be? One can only imagine it would be hostile. “How can we possibly compete when people can borrow books for free?” Publishers seem to have forgotten that, for many, borrowing a book is like dipping a toe into the sea. It is how many discover new authors. Libraries are a licence to experiment. They provide an opportunity to seek out the latest Booker Prize winning author to see what the fuss is all about. If they like it, they may well seek out more…but to purchase rather than to borrow. Once they know what they like, the purchase isn’t quite so much of a gamble. Indeed, a recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life project revealed that:
“…those who borrow e-books from libraries also purchase e-books. When e-book borrowers were asked by Pew how they acquired the last e-book they read, 41% said they bought it.”
Even respected studies demonstrate that “publishers worried that readers who borrow e-books from libraries don’t buy books can put those worries to rest“.
This is not to say that the lending of ebooks is not without its problems. There are clearly issues with the Public Lending Right that need to be addressed. It seems logical that this should be extend to include ebooks as well as print to ensure that authors aren’t penalised as print book loans decline and ebook loans increase (which is bound to happen as ebooks increase in popularity). It is also undoubtedly the case that many of the existing systems in place to borrow ebooks are too cumbersome and aren’t exactly user-friendly. Mollett may think that you just need to “click a button” to borrow one, but the experience of ebook borrowers is quite different with a whole series of steps that need to be followed before an ebook can be checked out on loan.
With the launch of a review into ebook lending, it’s fairly clearly that the publishing industry will be upping the ante and lobbying against moves to allow public libraries to offer ebooks free of charge. Undoubtedly, throughout the course of the review, we will hear words of doom from the Publishers Association about the apocalyptic outcome of letting libraries treat electronic books in exactly the same way as print (it’s worth pointing out, by the way, that in other respects they do expect them to be treated the same – in the way that makes them money of course). The fact of the matter is the publishing world will not come crashing down if people are able to borrow ebooks for a limited period free of charge from their public library. It will barely make a difference. However, the publishing industry will lobby harder and louder to make sure there stance succeeds. It’s up to librarians, library campaigners, book lovers and authors to make sure that the publishing industry doesn’t have the only seat at the table.