Public libraries are the Netflix of print books

Ever wonder why there is no Netflix of physical books?  Sure, a quick search on your favorite search engine will quickly pull up several companies offering a “Netflix-style” service for books, but none of them are even remotely popular as the video subscription company.

Netflix ended last year with 23.8 million subscribers according to their last financial report.  The had $875.6 million in revenue in their last quarter.  No company offering a subscription for print books can even be mentioned in the same sentence as Netflix.  That’s because public libraries are the Netflix of print books.

Public libraries had total annual revenue of approximately $11.6 billion in 2009.  If you divide that by the approximately 115 million households in the US, you arrive at roughly $100 per household.  So, every household in the United States spends about $8 per month for access to public libraries.

Modern libraries offer a wide range of services with books being just one of them.  But there is absolutely no doubt that “free” access to print books is the most important reason that libraries exist.

Public libraries need to wake up to the fact that they have been the Netflix of print books for decades.  They also need to realize that they need to become the Netflix of ebooks if they want to stay as important to society as they currently are.

The battle for ebooks is being waged right now with libraries losing out in a big way.  The “pretend it’s print” OverDrive model makes no sense to consumers in a digital world where everything can be downloaded to any device instantly.  Most of the major book publishers are not loaning out their ebooks at libraries at all.  They are worried that loaning out ebooks will hurt ebook sales and also have concerns about piracy.

Amazon has been able to take advantage of the difficulties that public libraries are having with book publishers over ebooks.  Amazon launched their own ebook “library” called the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.  This “library” lets any subscriber to Amazon Prime (currently $79 per year) borrow one ebook for free every month.  The selection of ebooks is much larger than that of any public library and is growing every day.  This is the closest that there is to a Netflix of ebooks so far.

Amazon was able to do this because they are the world’s largest retailer of books and ebooks.  They launched the library without the approval of many publishers.  Once you use the Kindle Owners’ Lending Libray though, you realize that it is the way it should be.  Amazon has brought all their expertise in dealing with customers to create the best ebook borrowing experience there is.  That is how they hope publishers will see it too.

Public libraries need to start making some bold moves if they hope to transition successfully to the digital world.

Libraries could combine their ebook budgets to gain buying power when negotiating with publishers.  In the “pretend it’s print” world this would allow every library to have a much larger selection of ebooks and more copies available at any time.  If libraries are lucky, combining budgets might even get them access to the full selection of ebooks from all the publishers and get rid of the idea of a “copy” of an ebook.

Another way to accomplish that goal would be to switch to a model where libraries pay publishers every time a book is checked out.  You have to get publishers to sign on but the customer experience would be similar to Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.  Library patrons would have access to all the ebooks offered by publishers and would not have to wait for a copy to be available.  Publishers would get paid based on how many times their ebook titles get checked out.  Libraries would be able to control costs by limiting the number of checkouts using a virtual currency.  This model should be the ultimate goal that libraries are striving for.

Another option is to create a National Digital Public Library of America that would be federally funded.  This digital library would archive pretty much anything digital as its primary mission but it could also be a way to essentially combine the ebook budgets of every library in the country.  The digital library would license ebooks from the publishers and then offer that to every public library in the US.  Federal tax dollars would pay for the digital library so local library budgets would slowly shrink as the demand for print books declines.

Public libraries need to be careful that they don’t transition too quickly to digital though.  A library in Illinois was considering an emphasis on ebooks instead of print books in a long-term plan.  Some highlights of the plan were to cut library staff budget in half, drastically reduce library real estate, and roughly triple materials spending with print books only being purchased when an electronic version was not available.  The plans leaked and the result was an absolute riot from the local community.

Libraries have to manage a delicate balance between print books and ebooks while they make drastic changes to enable them to become the Netflix of ebooks.  It’s a tough time to be a librarian.