Figures from Overdrive just released show that they handled 105 million e-book downloads in 2014 through libraries and schools. That is a wow.
It is not unreasonable to deduce from this that e-books now exceed 5% of all items circulated in public libraries and that Overdrive are handling 15% - 20% of all e-books in the United States. Congratulations to them.
The growth from 2013 is over 30%. This is in sharp contrast to the stories we hear from the commercial sector, where the portion of readers using e-books is already much higher- probably near a quarter of all books read- but that retail e-book growth has slowed to small numbers .
These figures show the huge potential of the library service to offer e-books but they also show that just yet they still have a long way to catch up. Libraries have been behind the curve but that could change now.
There are two parts to the story the first is the enormous potential and why it is available; and the second is the list of problems that had to be overcome to release that.
More books are read out of libraries than out of book stores. Annual library circulation for reading in the US is 2,000 million books and book related items. That is more than Amazon; indeed it is more than the entire book retail trade. The American library ecosystem' holds 160 million members (registered borrowers). And collectively it has access to almost every printed book that was ever produced and it knows where they are to be found. Moreover it receives about $10 billion annually of funding in support of its role. The reputation and the ambition are famous.
On the other hand the library service does not think of itself as a marketable, technical operation in the same way as those who compete for its readers. And those retail competitors are some of the best at giving service that the world has ever seen. Everybody knows and admires them and they do not rest. They are new but they already have international and wonderful reputations.
While this approach in libraries prevails the potential cannot be tapped and it explains why the growth of e-books in libraries has been so slow. The same has happened to other print book based book companies they have found it hard to strike the right balance not losing their heritage while striving to offer the new technical digital services effectively to their customers.
If there were a Chief Executive of library digital services she, or he, would be criticised for taking so long to make headway. The figures are actually still far too small. Maybe it is a problem that there is no one such person. The competitors certainly don't fail on that score. They have people with some fearsome ambition and drive and the positions with which to employ those. The library service needs that.
There are ingredients that could lead to success and they are these:
- We have to use the inherited strength better than we do. By that I mean, the membership (borrower) numbers, the catalogs and holdings of print and the systems that carry them, the brand reputation and the subsidy funding. These are assets to deploy in the single minded pursuit of wonderful service to patrons and researchers wherever they are.
- We have to give up some local sovereignty in the pursuit of a common aim: the internet competition is not parochial their service is international and gargantuan. Book readers now expect that.
- We have to manage the supply chains in a way that we do not. Too much money is spent on intermediate activity between publisher (or author) and reader. That cost has to be cut. Requirements need to be simplified. The competitors manage their supply chains fiercely that's why we hear so much about the negotiations they handle. We have to do the same in a way that we never have.
- There are too many platforms and library systems. They don't do enough and they cost too much : they don't add to the readers' experience.
- We have to recognise that authors and publishers need to be paid just as we do. The economics of the digital world are not the same as the print world. It's no good hoping some lawyer will tell them to give up their livelihood to replicate print lending. That won't happen. Their books and their business models are negotiable: they need them and we have to negotiate.
- Every library can offer every e-book in its own catalog, whether it has acquired it or not. That we do not already do this is a mystery.
- We need Marketeers to map the way forward. Big time. And we have to let them do their job. No committees.
- We have to have a library based DRM that protects on the one hand and gives access to library resources on the other. No more third party DRM costs. We should use our own eco-system.
It's possible to do those things - if there is a will .
This piece follows from a correspondence with Rob McGee who hosts the RMG seminar at ALA Midwinter and I'm grateful to him and intend being there this year. It is on Friday January 30, 2015 at 2pm
RMG Annual President's seminar
Improving library ROI in Technology, Content and HR
ALA Midwinter conference
McCormick Place West W176c