Public Libraries and Ebooks Redux [for Independent Publishers]

I had the pleasure of kicking off the new year by participating in IBPA’s PubU Online webinar series, presenting “Engaging New Readers with Ebooks in Public Libraries” alongside one of my new favorite people, Library Futures‘ Executive Director, Jennie Rose Halperin. Library Futures is celebrating its first anniversary and I’m really intrigued by its ambitious mission, which I’ve described as the Panorama Project on steroids. If you’re reading this, you presumably have an interest in understanding libraries, so definitely check them out.

I’m deeply immersed in the library ebook world via the day job so I haven’t been as publicly engaged with recent developments, and I’m bored with conversations that continue to center the “Big 5”, but I’ll always take time to work with “smaller” publishers and was happy to engage with IBPA members as a follow-up to my commentary on ebook pricing last year.

It was a joint presentation with Halperin, who covered Library Futures’ work, and included some conversation and Q&A, so I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing, but I’ve posted my slides and written up my main presentation here as it pulled together a few threads I haven’t addressed in one place before. Non-IBPA members and other library-curious types might find them useful as a starting point to learn more about how libraries work, and why they’re an important partner for publishers of all sizes.

Understanding Libraries

Context is important, so let’s set the table for today’s conversation and bust some myths. There are more than 9,000 public library systems in the US, and more than 16,000 total branches across those systems. The American Booksellers Association’s latest membership numbers show 1,910 members covering 2,496 locations. Barnes & Noble, now a private company working through a major reorganization, claims to still have more than 600 locations.

Libraries are everywhere, and believe it or not, avid readers live in rural areas, too! According the most recent IMLS data (PDF), 50% are located in rural areas—few of which have access to a Barnes & Noble or independent bookstore—so they usually have two options to get a book they’re interested in: or the public library. Many public libraries are part of regional systems that offer Interlibrary Loans, so the opportunity for discovery and access is practically unlimited. If a reader is looking for your book, their library will do everything they can to get them a copy in their preferred format.

Public libraries offer a wide range of services, but access to books in print and digital formats remains one of their primary missions, and the popularity of ebooks in libraries has steadily grown as access to them has improved and (not saying correlation is causation, but…) consumer pricing for most ebooks is often the same or more expensive than their print versions, at least for most Big 5 imprints.

Despite the annoying belief in some circles that libraries are no longer relevant in a digital world, the number of libraries has remained relatively consistent over the four-year period prior to the pandemic. During the pandemic, libraries have found themselves placed on the front lines to provide a variety of services, and access to ebooks became a critical one for publishers.

According to the IMLS data (PDF), the percentage of libraries offering electronic collection materials increased from 80% in 2014 to 90% in 2018. Meanwhile, ebook sales spiked during the early days of the pandemic, alongside increased print sales, despite the closure of many physical bookstores and subsequent supply chain issues. Library ebook circulation also increased during this time, which also means library ebook revenue for publishers increased.

All of this despite a persistent belief in some circles that library ebook availability cannibalizes print sales.

OverDrive is the dominant player in public library ebooks, by far. Earlier this month, they reported more than 500 million digital lends in 2021, a 16% increase over 2020. That includes e-book, audiobook, and digital magazines, and it includes circulation in public and school libraries. While audiobooks have seen an overall surge in popularity the past few years, they’re still behind ebooks, and digital magazines are a rounding error for most publishers. The majority of those digtal lends were almost definitely ebooks, and the majority of that activity was in public libraries as OverDrive is still gaining traction in school libraries where there’s arguably no single dominant digital platform yet.

For context, in 2020, OverDrive reported 430 million lends, which was a 33% increase over 2019. And in 2019, the year Macmillan announced it was going to start embargoing availability of their ebooks to libraries for the first eight weeks despite an average of 8.3 checkouts/title under their already restrictive two-year licenses (much lower than Macmillan claimed), they reported 326 million lends, a 20% increase over 2018.

[Disclosures: The day job is a peripheral competitor, and OverDrive was the Panorama Project’s primary funder while I was running it. I’m not giving away industry secrets here, just pulling from publicly available sources and putting them in context.]

News Flash: Some Readers Like Some Ebooks

“75% of respondents have library cards, and of those, 54.7% (41.5% of general survey respondents) buy the book rather than wait when a book is unavailable from the library.” Immersive Media & Books 2020

Last year’s Immersive Media & Books 2020 research from the Panorama Project offered a lot of interesting data, including validation of previous research over the years that show libraries are critical discovery channels for many readers, and those readers buy books they found in the library. While some are happy to sit on a library’s hold list and wait weeks or months to read a book when it becomes available, others will buy it elsewhere so they can read it immediately. Consumer preference is a critical data point!

Batman Slap Library Data

The trick for publishers is to understand where their books fit in the bigger picture. Buzzy bestsellers typically spike early, and a lucky few have long legs that drive both sales and circulation for months. In many cases, those bestsellers have restrictive licenses that expire, and renewals can eat up a significant chunk of a library’s digital materials budget. Meanwhile, most books either fall into the general midlist or have niche audiences that aren’t reflected in mainstream media nor traditional bestseller lists. This understanding should inform your pricing and licensing terms, rather than pulling a Macmillan and making rash, broad decisions in a vacuum that end up treating libraries like pirates rather than partners.

There are a variety of ebook licensing models for libraries, and which ones are available to you will depend on which distributors and vendors you work with. OverDrive supports the widest range, while other distributors may specialize in one or two as part of a specific value proposition to libraries and their publisher partners. 

This is a simplified overview of the most common licensing options publishers offer:

  • One-Copy/One-User (similar to print)
    • Perpetual access: Ebook never needs to replaced
    • Metered access (checkouts): Checkout limit aligned to print viability
    • Metered access (time): Ignores usage, for better or worse
    • Cost per circ: Driven by demand
  • Simultaneous access (embrace digital)
    • Perpetual access: Ebook never needs to replaced
    • Metered access (checkouts): Checkout limit aligned to print viability
    • Metered access (time): Ignores usage, for better or worse
    • Cost per circ: Driven by demand
    • Unlimited access: Similar to streaming and subscription services

Before you dive into these weeds, your first step should be to evaluate your current position with libraries, in print and digital. The best model for a publisher already engaged with libraries will probably be different from one just getting started, and the types of books they publish will inform which model makes the most sense at the title level.

Keep in mind that licensing models and pricing are two separate levers, and the right combination will vary for every publisher, and even for individual books. Frontlist vs. backlist; debut vs. series; fiction vs. nonfiction; entertainment vs. reference; etc. There’s no single combination that works for every book, and the irony of Macmillan’s blunt force attack was the underlying recognition that some nuance was required.

The most important thing to remember is that most digital collections in libraries are driven by demand, not proactive curation, so if you haven’t found your readers yet, matching the Big 5’s library terms simply ensures your ebooks are unlikely to be acquired by many libraries and remain undiscoverable to millions of potential readers. A good distributor can help you understand the pros and cons of each model, while engaging directly with collection development librarians in your region to understand their acquisition process is absolutely critical if you’re serious about succeeding in libraries.

(Comics publishers: HMU!)

Libraries Drive Discovery, Circulation, and Revenue

I’ve mentioned several times that libraries respond to consumer demand, especially when it comes to ebooks, so the obvious starting point for every publisher is ensuring their target readers know about their books. If you’re doing a good job of marketing in general, you’re more likely to get on librarians’ radars as they’re making acquisition decisions. Some library systems have a single person in charge of acquisitions, while larger systems may have someone specifically focused on ebooks, or even certain categories across formats.

Librarians learn about new books the same way consumers do, they’re just engaged much earlier in your marketing cycle, whether that’s through industry events, distributors’ catalogs, NetGalley, or in many cases, writing the reviews for trade outlets you rely on, like Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. They also rely on distributor carts to simplify acquisition for key titles, or subscription packages to affordably expand their offerings, so they can spend more time on discovering what’s flying under the radar.

That pre-publication window publishers love so much isn’t the only opportunity to get on their radar, though. They read reviews, particularly category specialists looking to dive deeper than the “traditional” bestseller lists, they monitor their own circulation activity, and they regularly engage with readers.

Readers Advisory is the underrated library equivalent of handselling, except it’s not about promoting their personal favorites or what’s lurking in the second tier of bestsellers. Librarians engage patrons to understand what and who they’ve read, what and who they’ve liked, and are able to make reader-specific recommendations that go beyond the bestseller lists. They do this in person, and many of them do it online — formally and informally through social channels.

Librarians were the original multi-platform book influencers, long before BookTok blew up!

In normal times, many libraries produce, market, and host thousands of readings, book clubs, literary festivals, comic cons, and other experiential events that directly connect their local readers to books and authors—new and old. Some libraries work in partnership with publishers and/or local booksellers, while others work directly with individual authors. Most of these activities feature local authors, not just touring bestsellers. During the pandemic, some libraries have shifted to virtual events with varied success, but each one of these events is an opportunity to reach new readers and drive library circulation and book sales.

Better yet: libraries do this all for free and get little-to-no credit for their efforts!

One of my favorite initiatives during my time running the Panorama Project was creating the Library Marketing Valuation Toolkit, a set of resources that helped libraries establish a monetary value for their marketing efforts, relative to what something similar would cost a publisher using targeted local media. I recommend checking it out and evaluating your own local library’s efforts as a potential starting point for a conversation about partnering with them.

Libraries Are Your Partners

If publishers had to publicly post their ebook terms in their ALA booths alongside their “We Love Libraries!” signage, there’d be a lot fewer booths on the exhibit floor! Too many publishers treat libraries as afterthoughts, at best; pirates, at worst.

Libraries aren’t commercial businesses, they’re public services. One of their primary missions is connecting readers to books they might be interested in reading, in whichever formats they prefer. They’ve built entire operations that rival most publishers’ own marketing efforts to promote books in their communities year-round, and all they’re asking for is to be treated fairly by a few corporate publishers who purposefully want as much friction in the ebook marketplace as possible.

Don’t be like those publishers. Take advantage of their myopia and be open to exploring ways to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with libraries, starting with truly understanding how they operate and what they need to be able to get your books in front of the right readers. Engage your distributor partners and make sure they understand libraries, and they treat them as equals to their retail clients.

Libraries will help you expand your readership, not only during those first few weeks of release when you’ve [hopefully] generated some buzz, but long after you’ve moved on to your next batch of new releases. They can’t do that if they don’t have access to your books, and they won’t be able to do it if your licensing model and prices aren’t aligned to their potential for circulation.

Know thy audience. Know thy list. Act accordingly.

Discover more from As in guillotine...

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

Keep blogs alive! Share your thoughts here.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.