When ebooks are ‘free’ through libraries for two weeks (like Harry Potter)

We learned last week that Pottermore will make J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ebook available to UK library users for two weeks in order to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its publication. The ebook will be available through library distribution apps OverDrive, BorrowBox from Bolinda and Askews & Holts from June 26 until July 7. During that time, the U.K. library system (which signed an agreement with Pottermore) will offer unlimited number of loans to the first book in the massively popular series.

We also learned that Pottermore is supplying participating libraries with posters, flyers, social media materials and competition ideas to help them publicize the free loans (as they are called) and, in essence, help publicize the book and the series in digital format.

Those of us who have worked with ebook vendors and engaged publishers (big and small) to consider alternative ebook business models (for consumers and especially for libraries) have long been aware of the resistance on the part of established, traditional publishing houses to expose their content digitally in ways other than through the one copy-one user model.

So when a publisher such as Pottermore decides to provide a Harry Potter title in ebook format through a library in ‘unlimited’ ways (which means no restrictions are placed on how many readers can read at the same time during the two-week period, and only during that period), the first reaction is certainly one filled with hope that a new trend may be on the horizon showing signs that publishers hesitant to embrace less restrictive ebook models in libraries are embracing innovation by making some bold digital moves. What’s more, some are touting this move as a great way to ‘support’ public libraries in the U.K., which have been struggling.

The second reaction, however, is one of hesitation.

While any effort to open up quality (and sought-after books)  for free consumption in digital format—via libraries or not—is admirable and will be appreciated by a lot of people, I am not convinced that a two-week period of ‘free loans’ is enough to make a lasting impact and make library patrons feel they are being ‘rewarded’ with something, while making libraries appear generous and competitive in the ebook market.  What happens after the two-week period ends? Will those ebooks disappear from the patrons’ devices like they usually do with the one copy-one user model?

What happens if a reader makes it through half a book on his/her device, gets interrupted because life gets in the way, and wants to continue reading a month from now when the ‘unlimited loaning’ is over? He must get a library card? He must go to the bookstore to buy a print copy? There are likely logical answers to such questions, but I am led to conclude that this move is helping promote the series, the publisher, and the ebook services providing access to the ebook more than it will help transform an image of struggling libraries and frustrated public library patrons who want to read ebooks without restrictions.

For years now, public libraries around the world have struggled to keep their doors open, especially those not located in affluent urban areas. A more productive way for publishers and vendors to help libraries remain competitive in the digital age is to arm them with the tools that do not frustrate savvy users, especially not the millennials used to getting the content they need when they need it. Placing restrictions on reading and calling temporary free access to bestsellers ‘free loans’ will not make patrons return to the library or remain loyal users. The simple truth is: like all digital content, ebooks don’t really work well when tied to ‘loans’ and ‘expirations.’

Still, for two full weeks, library patrons across the U.K. will be able to get to the first book in the series without limitation on their mobile devices. That’s good news indeed, and perhaps the first necessary step after years of resistance from publishers to go beyond ‘one copy-one user.’ Let’s hope that the subsequent steps (assuming they are to be taken soon in the future) raise the bar higher and keep those ebooks open for reading longer. So that libraries do not become the ‘sampling’ ground leading to more sales but trusted places users can go to for no-strings-attached access to literature. Either that or they will continue trailing behind and disappointing ebook readers.

Libraries, publishers and library vendors must work together to create more sustainable solutions for simultaneous, uninterrupted, and instant access.

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