Librarians fear over digital stalemate

Librarians have warned that the year-long stalemate with the major publishers over the terms of e-book lending could damage the already beleaguered service. 

Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Pan Macmillan and Faber are among the publishers still not offering their titles for e-book lending, a year after the Publishers Association set out an agreed baseline position on e-book lending aimed at helping shape the negotiations with libraries and library suppliers. HarperCollins, which did previously supply e-books, had mooted a controversial limited loans per purchase policy, but ceased supplying at the end of April.

Stephen Edwards, head of procurement for Hampshire libraries, said: "It is only a personal view, but I do fear for the future of the library service if we do not have a good digital offer."

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said the PA was no longer trying to negotiate a joint position on the issue. "Given the diversity of opinion among our  member companies, our opinion is we leave it to individual companies to make the commercial decisions on what they go with," he said.

Tim Cotterall, commercial director at Askews, which provides e-book library supply, estimated the percentage of UK publishers offering their books for lending in libraries could be as low as 20%, though he said "gradual" progress was being made with smaller publishers.

Librarians said they are particularly short of stock in popular fiction, and that some authorities are turning to sources of out-of-copyright texts like Project Gutenberg to boost their offering.

Mark Taylor, head of libraries at Windsor and Maidenhead and chair of the digital working group for the Society of Chief Librarians, said publishers had become "more nervous" over piracy. He said: "Our argument is that e-lending of one kind or another has been going on for several years. We are still very open to a settlement that is affordable and allows publishers to grow the market."

Edwards said he viewed the possibility of Amazon and others entering the e-book lending market with concern, fearing it would "extinguish" libraries’ unique selling point. He said: "Public libraries are already finding it difficult to get a niche in the e-book marketplace at a time when many UK publishers themselves are wary of libraries’ role here." Customers were expecting libraries to be able to provide reading in the new format, he added.

Fiona Marriott, head of libraries at Luton, singled out Penguin for praise for its e-book availability, but said HarperCollins was "a real loss". She added: "Our demand is still growing. If Kindle becomes compatible with Overdrive, it will become a major issue."

Hachette, Simon & Schuster and Pan Macmillan declined to comment. A HarperCollins spokesperson said the company was not supplying e-books to libraries "for the time being", but was working on a model "which works for libraries and their users, for our authors and for us".

A Faber spokesperson said the publisher was "yet to feel confident in a model which works in everyone’s interests" but was "actively looking" at other models.