Should public libraries sell ebooks?

Producers of ebooks have strongly resisted selling their collection to public libraries in the US and Canada. It took several large organizations and years of trying to increase awareness before they gave in. The American Library Association (ALA), 3M and Overdrive have lobbied the major book publishers for access to ebooks and now each major issuer has at least a pilot project or dispenses handpicked titles to public libraries.

Some of the trade publishers have unfounded fears according to one published author that giving away their ebooks will devalue them. These producers assume they will lose sales if ebooks are loaned out for free and this makes it very challenging for libraries to provide what their patrons desperately want. One way publishers are navigating the issue is to charge unreasonably high prices for an ebook license that covers loaning it out.

Most people still prefer to read a physical book. It is still a long way off before ebooks displace print books as the medium of choice for reading. It may never happen. But it is clear that ebooks are incredibly popular with library patrons. This is demonstrated by the numerous requests for ebooks and ereaders made to librarians every day.

Libraries as a whole can be a strong force and show publishers that they can really help the bottom line. An example of this is 3M’s Cloud Library Service and the new tools that let libraries sell ebooks that can earn them a commission. This gives the libraries an opportunity to be retailers and to help fund their operation. Everyone can win in this situation as long as people are ok with the concept of public libraries selling stuff.

Just imagine if public libraries fully embraced the concept of selling ebooks. They would instantly become the ultimate sales channel and marketing tool for book publishers. Library websites would include every ebook title the publishers carry. Patrons would be able to borrow many ebooks for free but they could purchase any ebook they want and the library would earn a commission for each sale. It would start to look a lot like the Amazon Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL).

Speaking of KOLL, Amazon found that one in four people that borrow an ebook for free end up buying one. The book publishers would be salivating over the possibility of offering their ebooks at public libraries. Libraries could use the money they make off ebook sales to offset their costs and to help purchase more titles to offer for free. The result would be better funding for libraries and larger collections.

Since ebooks are virtual goods the cost of allowing public libraries to sell them is minimal. You just need a technology partner that is willing to implement the platform. OverDrive would be happy to be that technology partner. They already power pretty much every library with their ebook platform and they would probably implement the functionality for free just so they don’t lose the business.

Imagine that you just finished reading an ebook that you borrowed from your local library and you see an advertisement asking if you want to buy the sequel. That may be all it takes to offer ebooks for free at public libraries.