E-book battles: Fighting for public library access to e-books helps publishers

Publishers wary of public libraries accessing digital copies

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 9:45 p.m. MST

Isaac Law,5, of Salt Lake City looks at a book at the Salt Lake City Public Library on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012. The book-publishing world is in upheaval. As print books wane, Amazon, Apple and Google are changing the landscape of e-books. Caught in the fray are public libraries. Publishers are reluctant to let the public have the same library access to e-books that they have to physical books. They fear a loss of sales, but a new survey shows that fear may be unfounded, and that libraries may take the place of bookstores as places where people discover the newest books.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The book publishing world is in upheaval. As print books wane, Amazon, Apple and Google are changing the landscape of e-books. The big six publishers (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette and Simon & Schuster) are beginning the process of rethinking and repositioning. Penguin and Random House recently announced they are going to merge.

Caught in the fray are public libraries.

Publishers are reluctant to let the public have the same library access to e-books that they have to physical books. They fear a loss of sales, but a new survey shows that fear may be unfounded — and that libraries may take the place of bookstores as places where people discover the newest books.

"We fully recognize and embrace the electronic information culture," says Julianne Hancock, Salt Lake City Public Library's manager of communications and library innovation. The library offers about 5,560 purchased e-book titles through one service called Overdrive. Another service called Freading offers about 20,000 lesser-known books through a token system. But the total number of e-books available is still small compared to the almost 900,000 items available at the Salt Lake City libraries.

"What has been difficult for us," Hancock says, "is ... to help the publishers realize that by them providing electronic content to us in the ways we see fit to serve out to our community, that that further benefits them."

We can't get it

David Lee King is the digital branch and services manager at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and a board member of LibraryRenewal.org, an organization that promotes the ability of libraries to get content in all formats.

"What's at stake is libraries being left out of content," King says.

King says libraries are being excluded from many e-books produced today. There are three main digital distributors that provide e-book access for libraries: OverDrive, 3M and Baker & Taylor.

"The problem with these services is, for the most part, the big six publishers do not sell e-books to libraries," King says. "They'll sell it to you and me through big distributors like Amazon, but they won't sell those books to libraries."

King says libraries can subscribe to services such as Overdrive, but the most popular books are not available for checkout.

"The new J.K. Rowling book? We can't get that," King says, "because it is not sold to libraries. We can get the print format, but we cannot get the e-book version, and that is just strange."

Borrowers buy

A new survey of 75,000 library patrons sponsored by OverDrive with the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy found that people who check out e-books via their library's website purchase an average of 3.2 books per month. A majority (53 percent) also said they would consider purchasing books discovered on the library website. Thirty-five percent said they have purchased either a print book or an e-book after checking out that book as an e-book.

David Burleigh, OverDrive director of marketing, says, "The survey shows the idea that people who use e-books and books from the library are voracious readers and are buying books."

But the publishers haven't quite bought that message yet.

Publishers see a difference between lending out physical books and e-books. In the physical world, a patron drives to a library, checks out a book and has to drive back to return it. There are a lot of steps, and it takes effort.

E-books, however, people merely click to download. It seems too easy.

Burleigh says publishers need to realize how important it is to have e-books available through the library "for the sheer discovery."

As Hancock at the Salt Lake City Public Library puts it, "library users are also book buyers."

Showrooms for the future

Bookstores used to be the mainstay of book discovery. People would go to a bookstore and browse the shelves and displays. That environment has been changing with hundreds of bookstores and even book chains closing — such as Borders and Waldenbooks.

But libraries still serve the same function as a source for book discovery. As the survey says, the public library is the primary source of book discovery for 57 percent of the people who check out e-books

"Libraries are where people discover new books and new authors," Burleigh says. "Libraries will discover a new important role as a new showroom for materials, both physically and digitally."

Eric Ikenouye, manager of the browsing library and welcome desk at the Salt Lake City Public Library says libraries are a marketing tool for publishers.

"We provide them with free publicity," he says.

Burleigh at Overdrive says library patrons are also a highly desirable audience. The survey said 48 percent of people who check out e-books make $75,000 a year or more. Seventy-four percent have a college degree or higher.

"From a publisher's standpoint, this is a valuable audience," Burleigh says

King says publishers are beginning to realize that as bookstores disappear, publishers need to have other places to display their products besides Wal-Mart. Libraries are in every town.

King says publishers are also going through many other upheavals.

"They are still figuring out their own business practices," he says. "Publishers are where the music industry was about 10 years ago. And so they are still figuring out that stuff and they have these libraries hanging on their coattails saying, 'Hey! What about me?' And I don't think they are thinking about those things, they are looking at their central business and thinking, 'How do we survive?' "

King is confident that things will get worked out over time.

"But it is going to be a process," he says.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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