17 January 2012

What’s The Point?

Checking out e-books without having to leave home — just as you would buy a title online: click and boom, there it is — might be the fastest-growing segment in the library business these days. But the experience is often far from the on-demand satisfaction people have come to expect from their laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Want to take out the new John Grisham? Get in line. As of Friday morning, 288 people were ahead of you in the Fairfax County Public Library system, waiting for one of 43 copies. You’d be the 268th person waiting for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” with 47 copies. And the Steve Jobs biography? Forget it. The publisher, Simon & Schuster, doesn’t make any of its digital titles available to libraries.

What eBook publishers are failing to consider here is that library loans aren’t going to cannibalize very many of their eBook sales.  The reason for this is simple: if people are borrowing an eBook from a library, it’s because they don’t want to pay for it.  Depriving them of the ability is not going to make them want to buy it.  If anything, it will more likely shift demand from borrowing an eBook to a deadwood book.  In essence, depriving readers of borrowing eBooks won’t increase eBook purchases as much as it will shift demand to borrowing different media of the same book (actual books, audio books).

Now, if publishers want to piss off potential customers that is certainly their right.  However, they shouldn’t be surprised if their forced scarcity doesn’t lead to an increase in sales. After all, borrowers were never going to buy the book in the first place. But why pile bad PR on top of that?


  1. It is only surprizing that book publishers are not demanding license fees from libraries on a per-read basis for their dead tree titles. The model is electronic distribution of content. Buying the music, movie or book does not give you ownership over the content, only the right to view it yourself. Eventually, someone is going to get wise to this and change the way they sell books to libraries.

  2. @Prof. Hale- Perhaps. One of the things that complicates the matter is how IP laws have changed over time (limitations, expirations, extensions, etc.), so certain practices may have been firmly entrenched before a law changed, and no one would dare to exercise their monopoly rights under the law change. For example, once deadwood books saw their copyright holdings become tighter, it was unlikely that any publisher would take advantage of it because the first publisher to move would take it in the shorts relative to his competitors. the only exception would be in the event that the publisher had a popular author, but popular authors generally have enough clout to prevent those sort of shenanigans.