E-book lending needs fixing

The issue of e-book lending by libraries is gradually building a head of steam as ownership of reading devices spreads. Put simply, libraries are risking a new form of irrelevance if they fail to offer an e-lending option to today’s digitally-savvy readers—and policy makers are starting to take note. A considerable number of library authorities are already offering e-book lending, but coverage remains patchy and libraries are frustrated by their inability to offer a comprehensive service, both geographically and in terms of the titles they can offer.

The reason, of course, is that publishers fear e-book lending, regarding it, not unreasonably, as an existential threat to their growing digital revenues and ultimately to their very existence. Why buy an e-book when you can download it for free from your local library? For years they have dragged their heels offering little or no stock for e-lending, restricting their supply of stock to protect their digital sales.

To square this circle, culture minister Ed Vaizey is shortly to announce a review into the whole issue, comprising the librarians, authors and publishers. Unusually, his proposal will have cross-party political support, which perhaps augurs well for whatever solution finally emerges.

In the US, which has been grappling with the issue for longer, two solutions are emerging. One is some sort of charge per loan, the other is to sell an e-book to a library with a limited shelf life—HarperCollins infamously suggested a self-destruct limit of 26 issues per e-book.

So what might a British e-book system look like? A tiny charge per loan, perhaps 5p or 10p to the user, would provide a revenue stream for libraries to distribute to publishers and authors. Librarians do not have a God-given right to e-books for free; indeed, in the long term it is better for them to safeguard the incomes of those who create the content they then distribute. The principle of charging borrowers within libraries is nothing new, and has been applied for decades to ancillary offerings such as audio and video.
That part is reasonably straightforward. More contentious are questions like: would it make sense for e-lending to be co-ordinated nationally, rather than through 150 library authorities? Would borrowers have to physically go to the library to borrow an e-book, and if not, how often would they set foot in a library again?