Libraries need to unite in battle for ebooks

Libraries are bringing a knife to a fight where book publishers, Apple, and Amazon are all bringing guns.  The only way libraries are going to stand a chance is if they combine their budgets and start working as a single entity when buying ebooks.

Right now, libraries are fragmented and are attacking the problem of ebooks on their own.  Meanwhile, book publishers are calling all the shots with ebooks at libraries.  Publishers are drafting the licensing agreements as they wish and many are deciding to skip lending their ebooks at libraries altogether.

Apple and Amazon have enough buying power that they are able to negotiate favorable terms with the publishers.  Amazon has so much power that they are able to simply ignore certain publisher demands.

One way that libraries could very quickly shift the balance of power would be to combine their resources.  Public libraries spend approximately $1 billion per year on their collections.  The Association of American Publishers (AAP) reported that publishers’ revenue is approximately $28 billion per year.  If all public libraries combined their budgets and allocated half of their budget for materials to ebooks that would amount to roughly $500 million or 1.8 percent of annual publisher revenue.  A number that big would almost definitely get the attention of the book publishers.  Even the ones that are not loaning their ebooks at libraries at all would consider changing their stance for $500 million.

Libraries also need to fundamentally rethink how they go about business.  They can’t pretend that ebooks are the same as print books and that everything will be the same tomorrow as it has been for years.  They need to adjust to the reality that ebooks cannot be treated like print books.  There is no such thing as an ebook collection.

Librarians should start thinking about ebooks as a database that they subscribe to.  They should be trying to license access to all of a publisher’s ebooks for a fixed fee per library cardholder.  Of course, this would be almost impossible to do for a single library with extremely limited resources.  This is why libraries need to unite.

That’s exactly what some libraries are doing.  Public libraries in Wisconsin combined their ebook budgets so that their members would have access to a wider selection of titles.  They are still treating ebooks as print books but at least they are joining together to improve the quality of the offering.  The results are a much larger selection of ebooks and much better availability for library patrons at all the participating libraries.

If all the public libraries combined their ebook budgets, publishers would be fighting to try and get a piece of the $500 million revenue pie.  This would drastically improve the selection of ebooks available to library patrons and circulation numbers would skyrocket.

This year is going to continue the trend of 2011 with massive growth in the adoption of ebooks.  Amazon has been selling more ebooks than print books since May of last year.  2012 may see ebook sales surpass print book sales everywhere.  Libraries need to respond to this seismic shift quickly with drastic action.

Combining ebook budgets at all public libraries and licensing access to all ebooks for a fixed fee per library cardholder is one way that libraries can gain leverage with publishers.  A whole bunch of knives has a chance to be better than one gun.


  1. Mike Briggs says

    Ebooks have been an extremely disruptive influence on the entire reading world. They offer huge potential benefits (zero delivery cost, effectively zero storage space, no wear and tear) but they present huge problems as well. Everybody wants them, but nobody want to pay for them. Readers want them to be pennies instead of dollars, but somehow authors and publishers need to get paid. And you’re right, they’re being treated like paper books, mostly because of that sticky money issue.

    Subscription plans might be a partial solution (though Hollywood is still bargaining and negotiating with Netflix). The problem for publishing is that every book is a separate contract. The publishers only have certain rights, and very few contracts would give them the right to sell books as a subscription service. So, even if publishers think this is a great idea, they’d have to go re-negotiate contracts with the author of every book included in the subscription. I’m afraid the costs would be prohibitive.

  2. Amy Adams says

    You are absolutely right. There is a battle going on over e-books right now between publishers and libraries. If libraries band together they will definitely have more clout.