On library ebook licenses, patron demand, and power dynamics

A collection dominated by bestsellers is one that prioritizes a small percentage of the newest releases for a small percentage of a library’s potential readers. Even worse, thanks to restrictive licenses, bestsellers can end up dominating an inordinate percentage of a library’s budget, while under-serving readers with other interests…

How does a library prioritize which readers deserve equitable access to ebooks, and which ones don’t?

—”Unlimited, Simultaneous Access to Ebooks | Expand Your Collection, Diversify Your Circulation

I mentioned a while back that ALA’s Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 report was a must-read, and finally pulled together some mildly provocative thoughts about ebook licensing models and bestsellers for the day job. Similar to the op-ed I wrote for Publishers Weekly four years ago (?!?), “Why It’s Time to Quantify the Library’s Role in the Reading Marketplace,” it’s part indictment, part call-to-action — but this time the finger is gently pointing at librarians rather than publishers.

I think it’s an informative complement to the ALA report and worth a read, but also wanted to expand on it a bit more here without the pressure of representing the day job so I can be a little more pointed.

Spoiler: Fair licensing terms are only part of the puzzle.

Librarian Influence & Power Dynamics

Last October, I attended and spoke at my first industry event since February 2020, Exploring the Anti-Ownership Ebook Economy, a spinoff of the well-intentioned but poorly executed report of the same name published during the summer of 2023. Unlike the report, which relied on a range of anonymous interviews offering opinions and speculation on industry practices rather than basic research that would have delivered concrete facts and necessary context, the event featured speakers with a range of credentials and experiences offering nuanced insights on the realities of the ebook marketplace — for better and worse.

Although the event and the report frequently blurred the lines between public and academic libraries, and school libraries weren’t addressed at all, the panelists and moderators did a much better job highlighting various pain points for libraries and publishers, and most importantly, the need for more education and data on both sides of the industry.

During the “Economics of Ebook Publisher/Platform Workflows” session I participated in, I made a point of challenging librarians to understand and leverage the power they have more effectively by supporting publishers who offer fairer licensing terms for their ebooks, using their influence to introduce patrons to books they weren’t already aware of. Later, during the “How Libraries Handle Ebooks” panel, Micah May piggybacked my commentary, delivering my favorite quote of the day:

“There’s more libraries can do to shape the demand curve and incentivize publishers to offer more competitive terms.”

Micah May, Digital Public Library of America

I’ve argued many times that librarians are the original book influencers, long before blogs and Goodreads and TikTok became the shiny platforms du jour. That influence isn’t limited to their individual communities and online networks; librarians also write many of the heavily sought-after industry reviews publishers rely on to help drive the pre-publication buzz and pre-orders that create bestseller potential. From bylines in their own trade journals (Library Journal, Booklist) and anonymous reviews in Publishers Weekly, to merchandising and events within libraries themselves, librarians are one of the most reliable sources of free marketing publishers have.

As much as publishers love libraries as a free marketing channel, with many having dedicated marketing departments solely focused on engaging librarians, the largest of them are equally skeptical about the popularity of library ebooks. Some have openly claimed libraries cannibalize consumer sales, and every “Big 5” publisher has adopted restrictive metered licenses to add friction to the market and make it more difficult for libraries to acquire ebooks by making them prohibitively expensive. (They act similarly on the retail side, of course, making ebooks more expensive in order to push readers to buy print books instead.)

As a result, many libraries’ digital collections end up being dominated by bestsellers, the overwhelming majority of which are published by the 5 corporate publishers with the most restrictive, most expensive licenses. The rationale? Keeping hold ratios down on the most popular ebooks, aka “patron demand.”

There was a brief moment, right before the pandemic started, when libraries almost recognized and leveraged their power to “shape the demand curve.” After Macmillan (one of the Big 5) instituted controversial new licensing terms that included the embargoing of new releases for the first eight weeks of publication (except for a single perpetual license), less than one hundred libraries publicly boycotted Macmillan ebooks, some even communicating the reason directly to patrons.

Less than six months after the new terms were implemented, the pandemic forced Macmillan to revert to their previous terms and the industry has been status quo ever since, with ebook lending continuing to grow, and mainstream bestsellers continuing to dominate libraries’ digital budgets.

Ebook Ownership vs. Licensing

“In short, in the model we are developing, libraries would own the titles, just as they do with physical books. Libraries would be able to both transfer their books to other libraries and to update books as needed for preservation or to adapt to new formats. Rights holders would retain copyright to their works and all subsidiary rights.”

Toward a digital library ownership model, DPLA

“Why can’t a library own the ebooks in their collection?” is a popular question that historically has had a simple answer. Even if publishers were willing to sell ebooks rather than license them, most libraries can’t afford to build and manage the infrastructure required to host and loan them out.

Last year, The Digital Public Library of America announced they were looking into helping libraries overcome this obstacle, and it’s arguably the most intriguing development on that front in years. I don’t have a strong opinion yet on their chances of pulling it off from a technical or financial perspective, but I fear the biggest obstacle is going to be the usual culprit: status quo.

I don’t believe the Big 5 publishers will ever participate in this model because they don’t support ebook ownership in any market. At best, a couple may experiment with deep backlist and first-in-series availability if they believe it serves their overall marketing objectives, but they already do that within the comfortable confines of existing license models and there’s been zero incentive for them to do more than that.

Meanwhile, libraries have generally proven reluctant to use their power to shape the demand curve and shift digital budgets away from expensive Big 5 bestsellers, even when it means sacrificing diversity and depth in their own digital collections. Public libraries in particular have allowed OverDrive’s Libby app (and in some cases, Kindle) to become the brand many readers associate with library ebooks instead of the library itself, and their OverDrive collections are often the centerpiece of their online presence, making other services less visible and accessible to patrons uninterested in the latest bestsellers.

Without Big 5 participation, most public libraries won’t seriously entertain DPLA’s solution because they prioritize patron demand over collection development when it comes to ebooks, which means OverDrive will remain their primary ebook platform and Big 5 publishers will have no reason to negotiate fairer terms.

Until more public libraries prioritize sustainable digital collections over temporary access to bestsellers, it’s a stalemate, and the Big 5 will continue to have their cake (free marketing and discovery from libraries) and eat it, too (expensive, expiring licenses that maintain desired friction).

Libraries have more influence and power than they realize, though, and when they decide to use it to build more diverse digital collections, they’ll either find they have more leverage to negotiate better terms for bestsellers, or better yet, discover their influence can actually reshape which titles hit the bestseller lists that drive patron demand.

Header Image: Photo by Adam Kring on Unsplash

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