Libraries should rethink ebooks

March 13, 2012

I initially read this post last week from Bobbi Newman titled “Should Libraries Get Out of the Ebook Business?”.  A scary thought?  Or  good business practice?  Great food for thought, due to the hijinks ensuing in the publishing industry (see the latest bombshell from Random House here).  Even the government has gotten into the fray because of all the confusion.  I encourage you to read all the links here for a full picture of the issues.

To be fair, publishers and Amazon are businesses, with their bottom line the ultimate decision-maker.  Traditionally, libraries have had a somewhat symbiotic relationship with publishers, influencing book purchasing through its patrons.  Libraries have also been a huge supporter of both authors and publishers.  Publishers are now trying to decide how to work with the upended model of publishing that exists with ebook proliferation, self-publishing and digital demand. Each publisher seems to be pursuing its own solution (such as the HarperCollins “26 checkout limit”); however, the losers seem to be libraries.  As Newman states: “libraries (and our patrons) are just collateral damage in the ebooks war.”  From what has been occurring, it doesn’t seem that there is a cohesive or well thought out strategy at this point to include libraries and their patrons, in spite of this past symbiotic relationship.  As more ebooks are in demand by patrons,  and since 74%  want even more ebook access, publishers seem to be panicking about their profits, based upon their reliance on print and conventional revenues.  Libraries seem to be stuck in the middle, with library budgets and ebook availability all over the map.

 A year ago, Meredith Farkas remarked on the flurry of ebook confusion among publishers and librarians. Both Farkas and Newman mention the varied and unstandardized platforms and challenges in providing ebooks through libraries, contrasting with the simple way that patrons get access when buying ebooks (I wrote a post about the difficulty of ebook access through the library).   Farkas also questions how we treat “ownership” of these digital materials, the restrictions of DRM, and how ILL fits in the equation.  These questions remain largely unanswered today.

To put this ebook panic into perspective, as of right now, only 28% of the population own ereaders.  Eighty-five percent of publishers plan to produce both print and digital editions of books, and 42% of publishers still arent’ sure of what EPUB strategy they are going to use (see this cool Infographic on the Aptara report for even more great statistics from the publisher point of view). These statistics alone should give us pause.  This is the time to be cautious and thoughtful as to what libraries’ next steps should be.

I agree with Newman:

Maybe libraries should just stop buying ebooks until there is a real, viable solution to the situation. Do not mistake me, I do not think we should stop looking for a solution or stop advocating on behalf of our patrons, but I do think perhaps we should stop throwing good money at a bad solution.

We should still provide ebooks when applicable, and easily available for our patrons.  We should still work to find solutions that enable our patrons to have information in ANY platform.  But, we should not be held hostage to software, pricing wars, and publisher whims.  If our patrons want something that isn’t available for download, we should be able to articulate to them the challenges libraries are facing,  and why we have made the decisions we have made. Let’s focus on how we can better spend our patron’s money (some good suggestions here).  Once this whole ebook business settles down, we will hopefully have a more streamlined and sane way to provide our patrons with their requested information and entertainment needs, no matter what the format.  THAT is just good business sense.

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