Publishing 'sleepwalking into oblivion' over library e-book lending barriers, says librarian

Publishing 'sleepwalking into oblivion' over library e-book lending barriers, says librarian

The book world is “sleepwalking into oblivion” if there are not changes to the terms under which e-books are made available to libraries, a chief librarian has warned.

In recent weeks, the US has seen a number of controversies on the issue, including a demand to Congress by the American Library Association for more effective licensing and lower pricing.

But, according to a report by Carol Boswarthack on behalf of The Society of Chief Librarians, the situation in the UK is far worse. Restrictions imposed by publishers mean e-book titles are up to three times more expensive than print, limited in range and tiny in comparison to physical collections, the document says.

Boswarthack, head of Barbican and Community Libraries, told The Bookseller, despite numerous meetings with key players in the months since her report was released last year, libraries are still facing expensive terms.

She said: “At the end of the day, the single most important thing is if we don’t make it as easy as possible for people to read and read how they want there are so many other options for them to do something else instead.

“If we don’t get people to read we’re sleepwalking into oblivion.”

There are currently an array of different licences offered by publishers to libraries with titles only rarely made available in perpetuity. The most common is a one copy/one user model, favoured by HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, Bloomsbury and Faber, among others. Alternative options revolve around either a time limit or cap on the number of checkouts which can be made. Again, there is great variety in the licences, ranging from a year to 26 months. 

Another key problem is that many of the most popular physical books are not simultaneously available as e-book purchases. Penguin Random House operates a three-month hold back period between publication of its physical and digital library editions. The Bookseller understands this was introduced to avoid damaging sales of new titles though the publisher is open to a review of its current policy.

Meanwhile, Hachette UK makes no e-books available to libraries at all, unless it is honouring licences from other presses it has bought, amid concerns that unconstrained remote lending risks damaging book sales. By comparison, in the States there is no such Hachette ban, although the US firm caused some controversy last month by moving from perpetual access to a two-year metered system.

The UK company’s stance was highlighted by Libraries Connected last month as one of the reasons why UK facilities are languishing compared to their American counterparts. 

Libraries Connected c.e.o Isobel Hunter said: “In the US, there is legislation which requires publishers to make their e-books available to libraries which is not the case in the UK. Hachette, one of the big five publishers, does not allow any titles to be bought by libraries while Hachette US does. The net result is that UK public libraries have simply lost customers who prefer to read in a digital format because we are unable to offer a comprehensive e-book service.”

Boswarthack said librarians feared any move to bring uniformity to the licensing issue would lead to the worst possible option would be chosen. She has called for publishers to work with library staff on finding a way forward, lowering prices and removing obstacles to reading in all formats.

She told The Bookseller: “There does seem to be a real fear from publishers that people aren’t going to buy books physically. But the e-book market is an absolute drop in the ocean compared to the physical market.

“Putting barriers in the way of people reading seems like a short term and not a very effective solution to the issue.”

George Walkley, digital and development director at Hachette UK, said: “We do not lend e-books although we do honour existing arrangements in place with companies we acquire. We believe that the lending of books through libraries should co-exist with commercial sales of books and, while we understand that libraries are keen to offer books in all formats to their patrons, we are concerned – and there is evidence for this in other markets - that the unconstrained remote lending of e-books risks damaging sales of books, thereby reducing author incomes and harming bookshops.”

He also pointed to upcoming events, including Andrew Michael Hurley’s tour of libraries as part of New Writing North’s Read Regional initiative, appearances by Peter Robinson in York and Sheffield, plus Harriet Evans will be touring libraries for her new novel The Garden of Lost and Found (Headline), as evidence of the firm’s support for the service.

He said: “We are huge supporters of the library service and we demonstrate this in many ways, including through our work with the Reading Agency and direct with libraries, to support reading groups with books, advance proofs, author visits and promotional material.  Libraries are a key component of author tours, staging big events for leading authors and working with us to launch debut writers.”