The current model for how publishers sell ebooks to libraries, and how libraries purchase and distribute/loan ebooks, is broken. There is no easy fix, no way to meet in the middle. Publishers sell books. Libraries buy them to loan them out for free to their patrons. This works nicely with physical products. Publishers put out new books, libraries buy them and stock their shelves. If a book is popular, or written by a well-known author, libraries buy multiple copies. And since books suffer from wear and tear, libraries place reorders for older titles.
But with ebooks, this model gets uncomfortable for publishers. For one thing, there’s no need for patrons to actually visit a library — they can just visit the library’s website to “check out” an ebook. Why buy the ebook if you can get it just as conveniently via a library’s website? The current result is that publishers are either not currently selling ebooks to libraries, or offering up pricing structures that libraries do not like. It smacks at the larger issue publishers face with regard to the economics of digital books.
Solutions? Various arrangements will be offered up. I’ve seen the stories about what the publishers are willing to try, what the libraries are rejecting. None of these deals will last long-term. More aspects of the digital marketplace for books overall need to be firmed up before the model for library ebook-pricing and loan limitations can be established.
But setting aside the current reality, here’s some fantasy with regard to what could be for libraries with regard to ebooks — in the long run, patrons, and books, will win out.
Here are just a few hopeful ideas why I believe this:
— More titles will be available to more people.
— Title loaning between libraries will transcend local/school library systems, and it will be instantaneous.
— It will be easier to find titles, and immediately begin reading them.
— They’ll be better organized.
— The organization of data will be more fluid and easier to update.
— There will be better metadata.
— There will be ways for the patrons to update, fix, improve and add to metadata.
— No need to replace damaged physical books — once it’s on a server, it’s available forever..
— No need to worry about wear and tear.
— No need for wait lists - easy to serve up the same file to as many people that want it at any given time.
— No need to limit the number of titles a patron checks out.
— It won’t be about how many titles are in your collection, it will be who has them best organized.
— Physical structures won’t be necessary.
— It won’t be necessary for patrons to actually visit a library to check out or, more importantly, return books.
— In terms of the physical space, more emphasis can be put on programming, exhibits, training and classes.
— Libraries can specialize in offering ebooks by local authors, or ebooks of local interest.
— Self-published titles can more easily find their way into the collections of libraries (no more “limited shelf-space excuses”).
— Archives and papers can be made available more widely and in a variety of digital formats — better preserving local history.
So much more is possible. Of course, even if all the issues with regard to publishers and libraries got worked out and allowed some of the above to actually happen, libraries wouldn’t have the necessary funds to actually execute any grand digital plans. It’s a shame that their budgets are being cut — severely — just as the the ebook revolution explodes. If there was ever a time that libraries need funds, and access to titles, it would be right now.