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Libraries Continue to Battle for Fair Access to Ebooks
Posted On July 1, 2014
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Academic and special libraries have found comparatively fewer problems in gaining access to ebooks for their clients than school and public libraries. Although many of the trade titles remain in rigid vendor-based formats, major research publishers have created workable contracts and pricing, fast and sophisticated search systems, and flexible interfaces that can be viewed on computers as well as on mobile devices. Today, access issues seem most critical for public and school libraries, particularly in the U.S. However, progress is being made slowly.

As the American Library Association (ALA) began its annual conference in Las Vegas over the weekend, Simon & Schuster announced that it would be extending its ebook pilot library lending program to all U.S. libraries “effective immediately.” The existing conditions will still apply: “[E]ach title acquired by a library for lending is usable for one year from the date of purchase. The library can offer an unlimited number of checkouts during the one-year term for which it has purchased a copy, although each copy may only be checked out by one user at a time. All of Simon & Schuster’s frontlist and backlist titles that are available as ebooks are eligible for the program, with new titles being made available simultaneous with their publication.”

ALA officials were quick to applaud the agreement. President Barbara Stripling notes that the “Simon & Schuster development is a welcome acknowledgment of our advocacy, the importance of the library market, and the key role of libraries in the nation’s communities. ALA looks forward to continuing discussions with authors, authors’ representatives, publishers, distributors, and retailers to create new opportunities to support a healthy reading ecosystem for the digital age. Let’s celebrate today’s progress, but also be mindful that a long and winding road remains ahead of us.”

Just a year ago, Simon & Schuster became the last of what are now the Big Five publishers (after the merger of Random House and Penguin Group) to begin testing ebook sales to public libraries. Librarians, led by ALA presidents Molly Raphael (2011–2012) and Maureen Sullivan (2012–2013) and the ALA Working Group on Libraries and Digital Content, were able to commit publishers to testing new models for distribution to libraries. “[L]arge publishers vary widely in their approaches to selling e-book titles to libraries, and conditions continue to shift as publishers change prices or restrictions and undertake pilots,” ALA notes in a recent FAQ. Details of the various publisher plans for public libraries are available from ALA and show little change over the past year.

Access in the U.S. still doesn’t answer public libraries’ needs from around the world, where ebooks are extremely popular. A recent study from Australia explains, “Nearly all Australian public libraries now lend ebooks; up from 69% a year ago to 97% in 2014.” Despite widespread popularity, Australian users face some of the same issues as other libraries across the globe in terms of serving public communities:

  • Today, ebooks comprise about 5% to 6% of a public library’s collection.
  • 60% of libraries use at least two ebook providers, up from 33% in 2013.
  • More than half of Australian librarians are less than satisfied or not satisfied with the choice of best-sellers, books by Australians, popular authors, and overall content now available to them.

A recent article about the San Jose, Calif., public libraries states, “In order to provide a range of titles, most libraries work with multiple distribution companies, which act as middlemen for the publishers and provide the software that allows library users to find and download books. Some distributors require users to download a separate app so books can be read on a particular device, such as an iPad, Android tablet or e-reader. Some also require users to create a free account with Adobe, whose software prevents unauthorized copying. But distributors and libraries have worked to simplify their systems: Instead of separate websites for each distributor, many users can now visit their own library’s online catalog to search for an author or title. If a book is available electronically, users can type in their library card number and, with several clicks, download the text in a format that works for their device.”

School libraries don’t fare much better today. Earlier this month, ALA’s American Libraries magazine published an overview of the U.S. K–12 school system, which notes: “K–12 ebook publishers generally are not huge subsidiaries of international multiconglomerates—as are many trade publishers, such as Random House or Hachette Book Group—with the resources available to deemphasize the public library market if desired. Rather, they are small, often independent businesses that work closely with their school library customers in order to survive. This is not to say all is dandy in the school library market. Increasing numbers of K–12 publishers have ‘sell-direct-to-parent’ business models that compete for many of the same resources that libraries ordinarily acquire, taking advantage of the growing home-schooling trend. K–12 ebook publishers also sell resources to schoolteachers, bypassing ‘library central,’ where cooperative buying and discounts keep prices down. Still, many of these publishers have been selling resources exclusively to schools and school libraries for years. Thus, a collaborative approach to acquiring digital materials has been less contentious and has resulted in a variety of mutually beneficial business models.”

A year ago today, Random House and Penguin merged to form Penguin Random House. Although the new company’s attitude toward ebooks and its integration process are apparently still evolving, it released new logos, which reflect the unique identities of the two publishing powerhouses.

So progress continues to be extremely slow, with libraries and their communities suffering the loss of ebooks. At the same time, publishers continue to contemplate their roles in this new environment while trying to protect their existing assets.

Amazon Seeks to (Yet Again) Rework Publisher Agreements

The big news today is the ongoing battle between Amazon and its publishing partners to work out contractual deals. It was announced that Amazon was nearing a resolution with Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. for its DVD and Blu-ray releases—which has been very contentious. On June 23, Amazon agreed to resume offering customers preorders of forthcoming Warner Bros. titles as it worked out pricing issues with the studio.

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Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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