Sweden leads the way on ebook lending

Sweden leads the way on ebook lending

Whilst the UK and the US publishing industries gird their loins to do battle with libraries over ebook lending, the Swedes are just quietly and efficiently getting on with it. Axiell, one of the library sector’s largest technology companies, has joined forces with Swedish publishing platform Publit to create Atingo, an ebook loan management platform that brings publishers and libraries together to easily negotiate loans on a book-by-book basis. 

In the UK, publishers and government are dead set on trying to make ebooks behave like physical books, a position underscored by William Sieghart’s review of e-lending in public libraries, which was commissioned by the DCMS. This wrong-headed focus is supported by the Society of Authors and embodied in existing models used by publishers to control e-lending. Such controls include lending caps with a repurchase requirement, delaying availability of new titles, pricing ebooks at ridiculously high levels compared to their print edition, or simply not providing libraries with ebooks at all.  

The Swedes have done away with all that nonsense simply by recognising that an ebook is not the same as a paper book and that trying to use the same model to lend both is a fundamentally broken approach. Instead, libraries borrow ebooks from publishers on a pay-per-loan basis. This Swedish Model allows for negotiation and flexibility, as Publit’s CCO, Jonas Lennermo, explained to me at the Media Evolution conference in Malmö last week. 

“How it works in Sweden,” said Lennermo, “is that publishers treat libraries as any other retail channel. They set the price and can change that price at any time. In the past, if they didn’t want to release a new novel to libraries immediately, they could wait until it had been in the book shop for four months or so, but now with Atingo publishers can just raise the price.”

Higher prices act as a disincentive for libraries to lend too many of those expensive ebooks, but if a library wants to blow its budget on brand new bestsellers, it can — the publishers simply get more loan revenue on those titles. Equally, if publishers are doing a promotion they can lower the price of that book in the library catalogue and see what happens. 

The Swedish Model also gives libraries “much more control over what they do best: curating the catalogue,” said Lennermo. “Through the Atingo dashboard, libraries can decide on what price range they are interested in, and which titles, publishers, or authors they want. They can set their budgets, control borrows, and stop lending at any time. There is a very well organised search, so that makes it easy for libraries to curate the best catalogue to offer to their local community.” 

In short, Atingo gives publishers the power to set prices and availability and gives libraries the power to choose how much to spend on which titles. 

Publit currently works with about 300 Swedish publishers while Axiell provide infrastructure to about 80 percent of the Swedish library market, so the joint venture made sense. Lennermo is at pains, however, to stress that Atingo is entirely neutral so can also work with any supplier.

Sweden’s compact nature has forced it to find a way to foster innovation through collaboration between commercial and non-commercial entities, such as with the Swedish Film Institute. So it seems natural that libraries and publishers would extend that existing spirit of co-operation, or possibly ‘co-opetition’, where competitors co-operate towards a mutually beneficial end. 

“In the US and UK, because the language area is so big and the market is so big, they trust the market to solve the e-lending problem,” Lennermo said. “But we know that that won’t happen here, the market won’t solve the problem. We don’t have enough ebooks and the market is not strong enough in itself to digitise backlists. So the Swedish Model is all about collaboration, and that’s what we want to bring to this new company.”

And that collaboration can go further than setting e-lending prices in a sensible manner. Libraries are also helping publishers digitise back catalogues, writes Publit CTO, Hannes Eder:

“In an ongoing pilot project initiated by the Stockholm City Library, publishing house Ordfront and Publit, a partnership has been forged that allows libraries and publishers to scratch each others itches. Within this project, the library helps digitise a portion of the publishers back catalogue and, in return, is guaranteed access to all frontlist titles.

“The cost for bringing titles back to life is shared between the publisher, who chips in the royalty, and the library, who covers the relatively hefty costs of scanning, digitising and proof reading. To reflect the fact that these titles are brought back to life in a joint effort this part of the project has been dubbed dual licensing.”

Libraries have even more to offer publishers, says Lennermo. Libraries know their local communities very well and, with bookshops disappearing, they are going to become increasingly important as venues for people to find out about books. They could also help publishers with business intelligence, aggregating anonymised reader data and feeding that back to publishers to help support their marketing efforts.

There are certainly opportunities for some healthy co-opetition, but first publishers need to stop seeing libraries as the enemy and start thinking of them as a valuable customer. Atingo will hopefully help mend some of the bridges that have been burnt by the intemperate rhetoric and references to ‘war’ that have so hampered discussions in the UK and US. Although Atingo is only available in Sweden at the moment, there are plans to roll it out to the UK and as an avid reader who’d love to borrow ebooks, I think it can’t happen soon enough. Hopefully publishers and libraries will then be able to call a truce and start working together to serve their readers. 



Suw Charman-Anderson is a social technologist, journalist and writer, and is for hire.