Great to see major publishers embrace alternative ebook models in public libraries, but let’s give credit where credit is due

This month, libraries across North America that work with hoopla digital will be able to provide access to some 15,000 (backlist) titles by HarperCollins, one of the ‘big five’ publishers that have resisted working with non-traditional ebook business models and adhered to the one-copy-one-user approach, resulting in less-than-ideal user experience for public library patrons. The news came the day before the official launch of the American Library Association conference in late June (see original press release here) and has already received ample coverage, much of which has revolved around statements that with this move HarperCollins was changing the game, breaking new ground, and giving libraries something exciting to look forward to.

While HarperCollins deserves credit for being the first of the Big Five (others include Penguin Random, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster) to go a step beyond the restrictive one copy-one user model (it was also the first to provide ebooks to libraries when others weren’t ready), HarperCollins isn’t the first publisher to embrace alternative models and certainly isn’t the one that is breaking new ground with this move. In fact, as many already know, hoopla has offered the cost-per-circulation model (which pays publishers per ‘loan’ instead of paying fixed fees to acquire titles) for a few years.

What’s more, other companies and other players in the ebook market have even gone beyond this model (e.g., Total Boox, Odilo) to provide instant, simultaneous access to ebooks in libraries and beyond. The fact that this move by HarperCollins is leading so many to call it game-changing is on some level a testament to how our industry (including publishers and libraries) views and values change and innovation. We often center our sentiments on what the most powerful do.

I’ve had the privilege of working with vendors that cater to all types of libraries and have seen first-hand how difficult it is to crack the public library market in particular. My experience has shown that the vast majority of libraries are simply not ready or are not willing to work with new (unfamiliar) companies providing high-quality services (and models that are actually revolutionizing access to books) if, and particularly if  a) they are not established and don’t have a proven record in the library field; b) they are not based in North America (not always the case but very often) and c) they do not work with the Big Five (because public library patrons want those bestsellers the most, an argument that certainly carries weight).

Because of my awareness of those three key reasons why I have seen game-changing companies struggle in the library field, I have often called on librarians to examine their own preferences and their own actions. This is why I have often urged them not to dismiss new models based on the presence of the Big Five bestsellers but instead on the presence of the publishers willing to test new models and willing to work with new companies entering the library field.

The simple fact is, alternative ebook models that allow public libraries to provide instant, no-barriers-to-reading access have been around for years.  Smaller companies have been offering them to libraries for years. Meanwhile, a plethora of small and mid-size independent publishers has been willing to work with all kinds of U.S. and non-U.S. start-ups for years. And a staggering amount of high-quality literature has been offered in such (often carefully curated) collections to public libraries for years. Even the biggest ebook player in the market, OverDrive, which for years catered to the wants of the Big Five, has now stretched its offerings to include a range of ‘other’ models. And some of them sound very familiar, particularly to those of us who also work in the academic market (e.g., Demand-Driven Acquisitions).

All of this shows signs of maturity and signs that our industry is moving in the right direction. But let’s give credit where credit is due and remind ourselves that the leaders among us have been pushing the ebook boundaries with bold moves for years. Let us give credit to the publishers that were indeed among the first to give ‘alternative’ business models a chance when the ‘established’ players did not. I draw here from my own experience working with publishers in the United States (and abroad) and encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones, and here are some (but not all) that come to mind: the Workman Publishing Group, O’Reilly Media, Lonely Planet, Sourcebooks, Berlitz, Berrett-Koehler, F+W Media, Lerner, the IPG group, Marshall Cavendish, Other Press, New World Library, Red Wheel Weiser and ECW Press, to name a few.

Without their open-mindedness and willingness to send those epub files to the companies that wanted to challenge the status quo and create better conditions for public library patrons, the established players would not have evolved into what they are today. Also important to add: unlike HarperCollins, which only offers its backlist through hoopla digital (for now at least), these publishers have long been willing to open up their entire digital catalogs.

Last but not least, librarians must continue to question whether those bestsellers produced by companies with the most funding to promote them are the only titles their patrons actually want.  They also must remember that if they don’t see them offered via alternative ebook services, it is for one reason: their publishers are not ready to work with those services.

When a library director gives a newcomer a chance and adds a new platform to its ebook offering, even without the presence of the Big Five bestsellers,  he/she has the power to introduce a mighty new player into the market. It only takes one library innovator to break the ice. Librarians’ actions, therefore, are more impactful than they may realize. Does this mean they sometimes must learn from  mistakes and the shortfalls of each new model? Certainly.

2 thoughts on “Great to see major publishers embrace alternative ebook models in public libraries, but let’s give credit where credit is due”

  1. Hi James. Thanks for your comment. I understand that variable-based payment system is a problem for librarians. Which is why I have seen some vendors ‘adjust’ the CPC and pay-per-usage models, which allow libraries to control their budgets. As we’ve seen with DDA on the academic library side, unless libraries can somehow control budgets, the center won’t hold. My experience with these alternative models shows that the vast majority of libraries does NOT reach the set budgets through models like pay-as-they-read. We need to test these models more and see what ultimately works. We are certainly not ‘there’ yet.

  2. Good article. As a librarian, there is no way were are going to a CPC model. Libraries have set budgets, publishers are now asking us to introduce a variable-based payment system into that?

    We stick to the “one copy per user” model (and with publishers who don’t introduce artificial scarcity by limiting circulations or time allowed for ownership). Which means that we stick to smaller, more library-friendly publishers and Smashwords.

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