Back when HarperCollins first announced that it would only let libraries lend their ebooks 26 times before they would expire, there was widespread outrage from the library community. Looking back on that, it seems pretty clear that a lack of consultation and poor customer communication fueled the furor. By itself, the lending limit could have terrible long-term consequences for libraries, but as part of a wider, well-thought out framework, it could be useful component.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about this over the last 3 years, and I've decided it's time to float a comprehensive proposal for how libraries and publishers might work together on ebook distribution to benefit the entire reading ecosystem. eBook lending as implemented to date has been founded on a combination of irrational fears and outmoded processes. We deserve better.
- Library ebook distribution must sustain and increase the total population of readers; this is a prerequisite for a healthy book publishing industry.
- Patron discovery of ebooks in libraries must connect effectively to ebook sales.
- Library distribution must become much more efficient, and overhead must become much smaller for ebooks than it is today for print books and ebooks.
- Long term preservation of ebook availability must be a joint undertaking of libraries and publishers.
- The economic models used for library ebook distribution must provide incentives for libraries and publishers to promote points 1-4.
So the fifth assumption is what this post is really about. Given 1-4, what should an economic framework look like? Here are the features of a model that makes sense to me:
- Decoupled pricing. An ebook license that allows for lending makes the ebook more valuable, so why shouldn't it cost more than an individual, non-transferable license? I can't say whether Random House's 300% markup for libraries is excessive, but why not let the marketplace decide? For new, super-popular ebooks, maybe 500% markup makes sense. On the other hand, maybe ebooks that need exposure should have an 80% markdown because libraries might turn them into bestsellers.
- Rate limits instead of DRM. Patron license embedding. I've written about this before. This may take the most convincing, but in thinking about the imperatives of effective discovery, low distribution overhead, and long-term preservation, I've concluded that there are no alternatives to major change in library distribution technology.
- Circulation charges after an initial period. Most books are bought in the first year of publication. Today, libraries "deaccession" books to match their declining demand. But there's no reason for a library to deaccession an ebook, so for most books the global supply for any given ebook will eventually exceed global demand. If the library can cut its transaction cost from ~$2 per circulation to $0.20 per circulation it seems fair to reward the publisher with part of the difference for developing books with long term value.
- License transferability/InterLibrary Loan. Libraries rely on interlibrary loan to expand the scope of their collections and meet special needs. But ebook loans can be instantaneous, so digital ILL can compete directly with backlist sales. If the transaction costs (currently ~$10) for ILL can be squeezed down to $1 or so, there's plenty of margin to provide a transaction payment to the rights holder for the privilege of doing so.
- Patron-funded purchases. Libraries are tight on funding even as they need to completely transform what they do. Their biggest asset is a huge reservoir of public goodwill. At this pivotal juncture, their ebook offerings are characterized by long hold queues. Why can't a library patron buy an extra copy for the library and jump to the front of the queue? Why don't publishers offer "Buy for your Library" buttons on their catalog pages? The reasons are complex, but it's mostly a case of "we haven't done that before". But if it doesn't happen I just can't fathom how library discovery can effectively plug into publisher commerce.
- License durability. If libraries are expected to "buy" ebooks, it should be pretty much for keeps. If the publisher for some reason has to revoke a license without cause, the library should get a refund of the license price.
- Archival copies. Libraries need to do a lot of things with books other than lending. Indexing and archiving are good examples. The saddest thing about the most successful library ebook distributors today is that libraries don't get access to unencrypted ebook files. If libraries are to offer effective discovery and archiving of ebooks, they need access to the files. Seems a no-brainer to me.
- Rate limits: One authenticated user per two weeks.
- Circulation fee: $0 for the first year, after the first year, 2% of purchase price or $1 whichever is greater.
- ILL fee (publisher share): 5% of purchase price or $2, whichever is greater.
A rational ebook lending framework would mean big changes for both the book publishing industry and the library industry. Even if a HarperCollins decided today that this was an attractive way forward, it would be hard-pressed to find a way to implement it, because libraries just don't work that way. So it seems a bit far-fetched at this point. Based on the iBookstore fiasco, it appears to be illegal for big publishers to even talk to each other, let alone drive business model changes. It's good that a library group is still trying to figure it out.
Maybe some small startup company could try some sort of pilot program.