Many libraries want to offer a wide range of ebooks for their patrons to borrow, but most of the big publishers aren’t keen on the idea. Library borrowing isn’t a profit centre for publishers; worse, many in the industry believe library patrons to be getting free ebooks when they ‘should’ be pay for them like ‘normal’ consumers. Clearly, then, there’s a gap in the market, and a couple of news stories over the past couple of days show that authors are increasingly taking matters into their own hands and selling direct to libraries.
First, there’s the decision by Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch to sell their own books to the Harris County Public Library in Texas. Konrath and Crouch are free to set their own terms for the deal: each ebook costs $3.99, comes without DRM, and can be loaned out an unlimited number of times (including multiple simultaneous loans) forever in any format that the library wishes to offer. Clearly, those terms are much more generous than many libraries have ever enjoyed, and Konrath and Crouch say they’re happy to do similar deals with any other libraries that are interested.
Then there’s the news that the Califa Library Group (in California) is also seeking to buy books direct from small, independent publishers (story via Teleread). The library is investing $325,000 in the project, and they say that around 50 publishers have already expressed an interest in taking part. This isn’t the first such project: back in August, for example, libraries in Minnesota launched a similar project. But with patrons demanding ebooks, libraries are having to find cheaper and more flexible sources of ebooks.
So have the big six publishers effectively priced themselves out of the library game, and do they care? After all, they weren’t making much money from libraries to begin with. But while many patrons might at first be annoyed that they can’t find the latest Stephen King or J.K. Rowling release as an ebook, most will probably start exploring other authors. Suddenly the likes of Konrath and Crouch will have new fans, and as word of mouth spreads, their profiles should go up. This won’t happen overnight, but I’d be willing to bet that it will happen if enough libraries offer this kind of opportunity.
It’s easy to over-estimate the demand for ebooks among library patrons. I’m not saying that there are hordes of people at the door each morning, desperate to download ebooks; in fact, surveys consistently show that many patrons don’t even realise that they can borrow ebooks from libraries. Furthermore, I’ve always felt that the term ‘borrow’ shouldn’t really be used with ebooks. You don’t really borrow an ebook. We need a better word for the process. But demand is strong, and it’s likely to grow. Libraries might never be great profit centres for authors and publishers, but they can help with visibility. And as many authors will attest, getting your name out there and known by readers is half the battle.