Will libraries pay publishers every time an ebook is checked out?

Public libraries currently treat ebooks just like they do physical books.  They purchase the number of copies of the ebooks they want from the OverDrive platform for a fixed price per copy.  Libraries then loan those ebooks out to patrons as many times as they want to, except for certain titles which disintegrate after 26 check outs.  Libraries also have to pay an annual platform fee to OverDrive to be able to use their system.

The current system is far from perfect and makes very little sense to customers that are used to downloading anything digital almost instantly.  The concept of a limited number of copies of a digital file makes no sense at all.  Several major publishers aren’t loaning out ebooks through OverDrive.  Even with the flaws, libraries almost all use OverDrive and ebook checkouts are absolutely skyrocketing.

One company is hoping to change the entire model for borrowing ebooks through libraries.  Library Ideas, LLC announced yesterday that their pay per use service is live at more than 50 libraries.

The service is called Freading and was launched in June of last year.  Freading has no upfront costs for libraries and provides access to tens of thousands of ebook titles from over 40 publishers and many independent authors.  The service charges libraries a fee every single time an ebook is checked out.  There is no limitation on the number of times a given title can be checked out.

The advantages of the system over OverDrive are substantial.  There is no such thing as a number of copies that are available so library patrons will never have to wait to check out an ebook.  The entire collection of ebooks is available to every library that offers Freading.  With OverDrive, libraries have to buy a copy of every title they want.  This limits most libraries to only being able to offer a tiny fraction of OverDrive’s 700,000 digital titles.  As an example, the New York Public Library only has 23,759 ebook titles available.

The gigantic disadvantage is that public libraries will have difficulty controlling their costs if they have to pay a fee every single time one of their patrons check out an ebook.  Another drawback is that there are currently only a small number of publishers loaning their ebooks out through the service.  Another major issue is that the service does not currently work from a Kindle.

Freading uses a virtual currency as a way to help libraries control costs.  The service uses tokens as the currency to check out ebooks.  Each ebook costs between one and four tokens to check out.  A library can set how many tokens each cardholder gets each week or month.  This allows a library to control the number of ebook downloads per cardholder which in turn lets the library know the maximum that they might have to pay in fees over a given period of time.

The advantages of the pay per use model over the “pretend it’s print” OverDrive model are huge.  The concept of the virtual currency as a way to control total cost could be the game changer that libraries need to adopt the model.  Unfortunately, any library ebook lending system has to have most of the publishers on board and has to work on Kindles to stand a chance of surviving.  Hopefully, libraries will solve both of those deficiencies soon and finally be able to offer the ebook borrowing experience that their patrons are clamoring for.

Comments

  1. Sue Petrie says

    As director of a small start up press, very happy to learn about an alternative to Overdrive. Question: do you think publishers – say when they sign up – could offer to support public libraries with a donation of tokens? That might help defray expenses, and it would be a way for publishers to become vested in their public libraries. Maybe authors could designate a donation of tokens, too. Just a thought…

  2. Robert Buckley says

    It looks like Freading works with the Kindle Fire. It just doesn’t work with regular Kindles. Looks to me as though they have some pretty good books. Great article, an amazing concept, looks to be well-executed.

  3. Ben Haines says

    While this model certainly offers convenience, it represents a very different model of library lending. Traditionally, the library will purchase a resource (book, cd, etc.) once, and lend it to members indefinitely. That is, the library pools the community’s money, then develops a shared collection more valuable than any individual community member could afford alone. The model described here, on the other hand, represents the library purchasing a resource for an individual member, for a single use. That is, the library is pooling the community’s money, then spending it on something which benefits only one person. I’m not sure this is the best way forward, despite the convenience factor.

    • Public Libraries says

      That is, the library is pooling the community’s money, then spending it on something which benefits only one person.

      This statement is close, but misses an important piece. The more accurate statement would be that the library would pool the community’s money to gain them access to resources more efficiently and more cost effectively than an individual of that community could on their own.

      Ebooks are not like what DVDs are to VCR tapes. You can’t acquire a bunch of ebooks and lend them out. Having access to an ebook file does not give you ownership of that file. You can’t just hand that ebook file over to someone else by letting them copy it. That’s called piracy. Licensing and ownership rights are fundamentally different with ebooks than they are with print books.

      All the “pretend it’s print” OverDrive model is is a way for book publishers to give ebook lending rights to public libraries in a way they can understand. The libraries don’t own the ebooks that they buy through OverDrive and they have to pay a licensing fee to OverDrive to continue to offer them at all. The pay per checkout model is just a better way for public libraries to deal with the seismic change in ownership rights that comes with ebooks.

  4. Ben Haines says

    “The more accurate statement would be that the library would pool the community’s money to gain them access to resources more efficiently and more cost effectively than an individual of that community could on their own.”

    The idea being that the price-per-checkout is lower than the retail price, because libraries can, formally or informally, guarantee a certain number of downloads based on their user base? So the library is leveraging the buying power of the community to lower the end-user cost of the e-book? I can see that point.

    Still, the traditional relationship b/w libraries and their users would be turned on its head. I can’t imagine a library, say, limiting the number of print checkouts per month, because each circ is costing them money. Instead of amortizing up-front costs over the life of a collectively-owned book, Freading forces libraries to distribute costs to individual patrons. “John D. cost us $47 dollars this month,” a library could say. (And imagine the arguments! Why can’t John D. take some money allocated to Jane S., since Jane S. doesn’t even /own/ an e-reader? And so on.)

    “Having access to an ebook file does not give you ownership of that file. You can’t just hand that ebook file over to someone else by letting them copy it.”

    Well, that’s true for SOME ebooks, because those are the terms the publishers or distributors have demanded, and Overdrive hasn’t been willing to fight the publishers for rights of first sale, and libraries haven’t been able to construct a viable alternative to Overdrive. But there’s nothing in the nature of e-books that says they have to play by different rules. Copyright law applies to e-books in exactly the same way it applies to any creative work. Everything else–DRM, restricted lending, EULAs, etc.–is market driven.

    It is entirely possible–and I would say necessary–for libraries to develop a method of lending e-books that ensures copyright restrictions are upheld, to the extent that libraries are responsible for policing those restrictions. With such a system, we could negotiate directly with publishers and authors to lend their books. It’s a lofty goal, sure, but so is the very idea of a library.

    As an interesting anecdote, consider the experience of Cory Doctorow, when he tried to get a distributor to allow legal access to his works:

    “[I asked Audible] to allow me to add some preliminary language to the audio edition, something that said, ‘notwithstanding any agreement you clicked on to buy this book, Cory Doctorow and Random House Audio, as the copyright holders, hereby give you their blessing to do anything that is permitted by your local copyright law’ In other words: don’t break the law, but feel free to do anything else—the same terms under which your car, dishwasher, and every traditional book on your bookshelf was sold to you. Again, Audible declined.”

  5. Dennis Gregory says

    I believe there is a converter that will allow Kindles to read the pub files on Overdrive.