By Emilie Hancock
It’s no secret that technology has impacted reading. As eReading has become more prevalent, readers demand publications in both print and digital formats. Not only has that thirst for varied formats allowed greater freedom for how and when we read — devouring short serials on the bus or listening to audiobooks while running, for instance — it has also allowed more freedom in what, or who, we read. In addition to books available from big publishers, digital publishing has seemingly conjured scores of indie and self-published books out of the shadows. And judging by the success of Hugh Howey and CJ Lyons, among others, readers are happy to include indie books along with those from big-name presses.
However, while most libraries around the country meet patrons’ digital demands by lending eBooks, many have historically been less than enthusiastic about the idea of adopting indie eBooks. That has been changing in major urban libraries and in the thought leadership of the library world, with good reason. By examining evidence around the consumer demand and affordability of indie eBooks versus eBooks from traditional publishers, we can demonstrate how incorporating indie eBooks into libraries’ catalogs can be good for both patrons and libraries.
The Rise of eReading in Libraries
Libraries have come a long way since the early days of limited archives etched into tablets — made of clay, not pixels and paper — shared with a select group of elite society. 18th-century France ushered in the truly democratized library as we know it today, with the Bibliothèque Nationale offering hundreds of thousands of printed books and manuscripts to the general public, regardless of financial means or education. Since then, libraries have strived to keep up with and serve public interests, including one of the more recent developments spawned by the digital age: eReading.
In addition to print books, patrons also read digitally. Not surprisingly, a rise in the number of devices that Americans own has corresponded to a rise in eReading. What’s more, while the number of people who use dedicated eReaders has stabilized, the number who read eBooks on multipurpose devices like tablets and cellphones has increased substantially, signaling greater diversity in people who read eBooks.
In response to the rising popularity of eReading, 90% of public libraries offer eBook lending services, a statistic that would make the folks behind the American Library Association’s Libraries Transform campaign smile proudly. Additionally, the outlook for eBook presence in libraries is positive. eBook circulation increased 12% from 2013 to 2014, and libraries expect circulation to continue to rise at a similar rate. Plus, readers of all ages are continuing to turn to libraries for eBooks, a fact demonstrated by the vast majority of libraries that are experiencing increased demand for adult, young adult and children’s eBooks in libraries.
Incorporating the Indie Book Movement
Despite libraries’ adoption of eReading, the gap between the number they circulate versus the number of eBooks that are procured via direct purchase is profound. U.S. eBook sales for Amazon alone are at over 1,000,000 units a day and growing, while a 2015 Library Journal (LJ) report shows that the average annual number of eBooks that all of the libraries in the United States lended in 2014 was only 75,600 per day. If librarians turn to patron demand to guide which materials to add and keep in circulation, it would come as no surprise that, historically, the eBooks that libraries choose to lend have often overlapped with those sold by big publishers. After all, purchases reflect readers’ demands.
However, eBook purchases also reflect big publishers’ agendas, which entail aggressive pushes to meet a bottom line that, ironically, conflicts with libraries’ missions to lend books at no cost to the public. On top of that, eBooks by big publishers often cost just as much as or more than their print counterparts and come with usage-based price inflations and restrictions — more irony, considering eBooks don’t experience physical wear and tear.
Luckily, eBooks don’t just facilitate reading. They also make publishing and author discovery easier, a truth to which scores of indie and self-published authors who use library-oriented programs like Pressbooks Public and SELF-e can attest. In fact, so many indie eBooks have now permeated the market that readers are no longer forced to rely on Big Five publishers to find books. Just as libraries democratized who could take advantage of their book lending services, indie and self-publishing have democratized the book market by expanding the selection of books available to consumers beyond big publishers.
Understandably, some readers have been skeptical about the quality of writing that comes with the ease of self-publishing. Less understandably, the same readers sometimes fail to apply that same cautious approach to traditionally published books — many of which are subpar in the eyes of librarians — based on the argument that indie books don’t have esteemed third-party approval. But what indie authors lack in publisher support, they often make up for in sheer reader support. The success of authors who started by self-publishing, like Hugh Howey, CJ Lyons and others, more than proves their worth for readers, and now their books are part of library catalogues across the nation.
Truth be told, readers have been eagerly devouring indie eBooks with increasing enthusiasm, while traditionally published eBook sales are declining. The most recent Author Earnings report, which measures the health of the book market based on profits made by authors rather than publishers, shows that the number of indie eBooks sold has increased by about 15 percentage points in just over two years. During the same time period, the number of eBooks sold that was published by the Big Five has plummeted about 20 percentage points. It’s no mystery why libraries would want to purchase bestsellers for their patrons, but adding indie eBooks to their virtual shelves would please both their patrons and their purses. Not only are they growing in popularity among readers, but they also come at a fraction of the cost of traditionally-published books and are typically free of baggage like restricted usage policies and outrageous price inflations.
The call for libraries to offer more indie eBooks by no means signals an either/or stance on whether to offer traditionally published or self-published eBooks. Just as libraries have adapted to patrons’ desires to read digitally by lending both eBooks and print books, they can respond to patrons’ demands for eBooks by indie authors by adding them to their circulation mix. Considering that readers are the ones to dictate an indie author’s success, libraries have much to gain by challenging themselves to base more acquisitions on a perspective that considers an author’s success among readers.
Emilie Hancock is Content and Media Editor at BiblioLabs, the creators of BiblioBoard. She is the founder of Books Unbound, a literacy program for incarcerated teens in South Carolina. She lives with her husband and their two bossy dogs, and is a patron of the Charleston County Public Library.