E-lending enigma

Publishers are concerned about the potential impact that universal e-book lending could have on their business models and on author’s earnings, as well as the risks of piracy. Meanwhile booksellers are particularly alarmed by the idea that any e-book could be borrowed free just by pressing a button.

Both are right to be concerned: they should insist that any future model is carefully tested and its impact evaluated.

Meanwhile, librarians are worried that they may be bypassed to a considerable extent by the transition from print to e-books. This concern has particular resonance at a time when authorities face severe cuts in funding and some hundreds of community libraries are threatened with closure or transfer to volunteer management. Its inability to offer a comprehensive e-book lending service would further damage a service which is already demoralised.

Any effective solution is likely to require the setting up of a national e-lending service to allow all registered library users, whatever their postcode, access to a national "library" of e-books. At this stage there is no organisation with the necessary technical, operational and marketing expertise to develop and manage such a service. We cannot rely upon the 151 separately managed library authorities, in England alone, individually to get their act together. And what will happen in Scotland, Wales and in the single library service in Northern Ireland?

At this stage there are a number of e-book suppliers, led by Overdrive and Bloomsbury's Public Libraries Online, working with individual library authorities. Two new businesses, Bilbary and Oyster have been launched in the USA and are expected to enter the UK market. However, the most significant move may be by Amazon which has begun its Kindle lending service.

It is clear that any publicly funded e-book lending service could face tough competition from commercial providers which will exploit their technical, operational, customer service and marketing expertise to try to dominate the evolving market.

The DCMS Inquiry panel faces a tough challenge to recommend a solution acceptable to librarians, authors, publishers, booksellers and to the commercial suppliers. It seems increasingly likely that any national service will have to be based on a subscription model. Spotify and others have been suggested as possible models to emulate.

Whatever the panel's recommendations, they should ensure these have the support of the "Big Six" trade publishers—whose primary concern may be to find a solution for the  much larger US library market. Despite the recent heated and very public arguments in the USA, a committee of its senior librarians is understood to be involved in constructive discussions with each of the "Big Six" publishers.

My own guess is that an eventual solution to providing a comprehensive, national e-book lending service will be based on a simple subscription model, with restrictions in terms of usage and proper controls to protect against piracy and other risks

The DCMS Inquiry provides a real opportunity to find a way to encourage and support literacy, reading,  education and the acquisition of knowledge, by allowing library users across  the country to *benefit* from the e-book revolution. We can all help by submitting  constructive proposals to E-Lending@culture.gsi.gov.uk by the 6th November.

Desmond Clarke is a library campaigner. He retired as president and c.e.o. of International Thomson Publishing Services Group and is a former director of Faber.