How do you get publishers to make their ebooks available for library patrons? If you’re the UK government, apparently you start considering mandating a certain level of ebook lending. That’s one of the options being floated following the announcement of a government review of ebook lending; while it’s unlikely that such a measure will actually be taken, it’s a sign of growing impatience among officials regarding the reluctance of publishers to step up to the plate.
The problem is simple. Publishers believe that if you lend ebooks to library patrons, you’re missing out on sales. In the past, with physical books, there was a natural limit to how many copies could be loaned, so publishers bit the bullet. Now the prospect of unlimited simultaneous loans, and possibly piracy, means that publishers fear their books will effectively be given away to anyone who wants them. That would obviously leave the publishing industry in an unsustainable position, so a balance has to be struck.
At the same time, if publishers are to get a decent financial return from libraries, then someone has to open their wallet. The government is unlikely to pay for a mass ebook lending program, so where does the money come from? All sorts of ideas have been put forward, including the idea that library patrons might pay a small fee, and the idea that digital restrictions are placed on the loans. But the former would seem to go against the very spirit of the library system, while the latter is artificial and prone to being bypassed by patrons.
It’s tempting to say that you simply can’t reconcile libraries and ebooks, at least not while also maintaining the profit motive. That said, a lot of effort is being put into discussion of the issue, and it’s clear that the UK government, like others around the world, wants to come up with a solution. You can’t blame libraries for wanting to give their patrons a 21st century reading experience, and you can’t blame publishers for wanting to make a profit from their books. I can’t see how a perfect solution can be reached, so it looks like we’ll need another compromise.