In depth: Stephanie Duncan on e-lending

In September the government launched its promised review into library e-book lending, chaired by publisher William Sieghart. Acknowledging that the current provision is somewhat patchy, with no common consensus on the best approach, the review will look at the benefits of e-lending, how it is fulfilled, the potential demand, the barriers to supply and the possible consequences on libraries, publishers and booksellers.

The review will open up the question of whether libraries should be able to loan (for free) e-books, and what a sustainable e-lending model looks like for publishers and booksellers.

As the panel gathers submissions, Stephanie Duncan, digital media director at Bloomsbury, offers her perspective.

I should preface this piece by saying that I’m a huge believer in the value of libraries as a vital resource to drive literacy, learning and discoverability of books, as well as revenue to publishers and authors. I also believe they can be a great community space, and I am very much looking forward to the launch of the Library of Birmingham as an example of how libraries can be: a combination of physical and digital resources, a beautiful space to meet and connect in person in our increasingly virtually connected world.

Many publishers are firm believers in the value of libraries, but since publishing is a business, we need to ensure the commercial viability of enabling digital lending in public libraries free at point of use. This piece focuses on trade titles rather than reference books; the latter have been sold digitally into libraries for years.

I believe e-lending trade content in public libraries is a commercially viable solution for publishers as well as a complementary service to the many amenities libraries already offer. Libraries provide a place to nourish a lifelong love of reading; a community hub offering author events, activities for parents and children; a place to study, read and learn new things. Libraries were instrumental in Martha Lane Fox’s recent Race Online/GO ON UK initiative to help those without internet access in the UK to get online: librarians were teaching people how to use the internet to enable them to do things online that many of us take for granted.  

The fear that the public will discover they can borrow e-books for free from libraries (and stop buying books because of that) is, in my view, unfounded. Just as there is friction which controls “p-book” lending (physically getting to a library to borrow a print edition), there can be friction to control digital lending that enables this to proceed taking all stakeholders’ needs and concerns into account, which I will discuss below.


More people visit a library than any cultural or sporting venue, which is true of all English-speaking markets. Thirty-five million people are library members in the UK, and 70% of those are book buyers. This is a large constituency of readers that publishers should engage with. Libraries allow for discoverability and drive sales, we just need to establish the controls and payment mechanisms that help publishers to enable digital library supply. Sales to a library is a revenue stream, as is the potential to sell to the library members should they discover a book or an author through the library. This could be achieved directly through a library’s website, with links to a range of booksellers providing an affiliate share to the library.


The key points in the e-lending debate from a publisher’s perspective are access, control and payment.

Controls are vital to ensure that the free at point of use nature of library lending cannot be abused by non-library members accessing the material. Libraries take these controls very seriously, as do library aggregators—both of whom recognise the need to ensure controls are in place so that only those who live, work or study within the library’s authority can access the library’s materials.


Access to digital books in libraries is mainly provided in two ways, both of which are controlled by the library’s available budget. The first is a digital download service such as those provided by Overdrive, Gardners or Peters, which offers one download per person (one person at a time) for a two-week loan period. The second is an online access model, such as Public Library Online, in which there is no download, but simultaneous user access to themed digital shelves online.

Let’s take a typical library authority serving 250,000 people as an example. If that authority buys one copy of a title as a digital download with a loan period of two weeks, 26 people a year can borrow that book, so it would take nearly 185 years for each one of those 250,000 people to borrow that book for free.

So whilst a library member browsing their library website may discover a book lying in bed, the likelihood is that it will be out on loan, and they will need to put themselves on a waiting list to borrow it. In a digital culture that prizes immediacy, this is likely to drive a sale through discoverability. It certainly won’t allow 250,000 people to read the book (for free) as quickly as they would want to.

Access can also be online with no download, through a service such as Public Library Online offering simultaneous user access to themed bookshelves that have been curated by publishers and bought by libraries. Here, whilst all 250,000 can access the book simultaneously, they need to be connected to the internet to do so, and the reading experience won’t be akin to ownership: there will be no bookmarking, synching between devices, remembering what page you were on.  

Again, this is likely to drive discoverability of a title, but the nature of the reading experience is likely to drive a sale. Even if the library member reads the whole book online, the provision of curated content by the participating publisher can control access.
For example, the Quercus Crime shelf includes the first in the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy but not books two and three in the series—so someone may read the first book in full in Public Library Online, but they would need to visit the library to borrow (or a bookshop to purchase) the print editions of the next books in the series should they want to read them.

Publisher controls

There are also publisher controls that can (and are) applied, such as windowing—making books available to libraries six months after first publication—or capping the number of loans (or a period of time), after which a further payment becomes due; or through curation—only making certain titles available for library lending.

HarperCollins in the US famously put a cap of 26 loans before a top-up payment is required: 26 loans for a two-week period is one year. Penguin’s 3M pilot programme involves an annual fee and top up payments for subsequent years. Public Library Online has always been sold as an annual subscription based on population served. Publishers have also adopted the reference model of charging a multiple of the r.r.p. in recognition of the fact that more than one person will borrow and read the book.  

There remains an author concern over Public Lending Right which is currently excluded from digital lending due to a copyright exception rule which would require legislation to enable PLR to be payable on digital loans. But given that the pot available for PLR is limited by government funding, to make it payable on digital lending would simply split this payment between physical and digital loans, it wouldn’t double the amount payable.
I would add that I’m against the concept of the public paying for access to e-books in libraries, and believe that books should continue to be made available to the public free at point of use through the Public Library system, paid for through our taxes. If libraries start to charge for access to books they become a retailer, and other commercial arrangements would apply.

Libraries are aware of publishers’ commercial concerns and their need to ensure they, and their authors, are appropriately remunerated for digital lending. Publishers are aware that with the proper controls and payments for access, digital lending in libraries is feasible as a means of driving discoverability, literacy and sales.