Whatever the consequences of Amazon’s entry into e-book lending, the acceleration of erosion of support for existing library lending programs has mobilized leading public library organizations. While many of us are willing to consider very seriously the proposition that libraries might not provide access to contemporary digital books in the future as a necessity, we nonetheless have no desire to go gentle into that good night.
Whether at the level of DPLA or at more modest community focused libraries, there’s broad recognition that scale empowers rich services, and that greater content aggregation compels use. Widely distributed plots of wild flowers do not have the same appeal as a glorious jungle of possibilities. The consequences for a viable future library e-book lending service are becoming more clear, and the outlines more apparent.
An effective library platform for the provision of contemporary frontlist e-books must be a collective, providing services to member libraries, through some kind of central administrative agent. This central agency (CA) will either directly establish or license the cloud based server infrastructure, with adjutant policies, necessary to securely hold and maintain frontlist intellectual property and provide it on widely accepted borrowing terms to the patrons of the collective. Libraries recognize that the artifice of one loan per purchased copy of a book is a flexible enough policy to be effective: purchased, because libraries have the right to own content, but have a responsibility to maintain market systems that support authorship; flexible, because it enables content selection by library members in the same manner as present consortia.
Precedents are useful, if imperfect. Examination of collectives such as OCLC and HathiTrust informs how a CA might be organized and administered. OCLC is a successful enterprise, but its transformation into an agglomeration of disparate business services diversifies its interests while increasing the costs of administration. HathiTrust is leaner, accomplished, and focused on academic research library needs; it has weak ties to public libraries and does not seek to serve them. It has required strong leadership from a single library, the University of Michigan, to overcome the inertia confronting inter-institutional collaboration. DPLA does not exist as an operating organization; it could be the root of a potential CA, but young and ill-formed, saddled with a grand vision at birth, it will be months before it grows into its ambitions. We’ll learn from all of these.
Every lending library is a partnership between authors, publishers, and communities. For both traditional publishing and the growing number of self-publishing authors and literary agents, a new generation public library collective presents both tactical and strategic advantages.
Although the CA might purchase books through an existing distributor such as Ingram, or even Overdrive itself, it would have enough heft to be a direct recipient of book content through regular feeds; yet it would permit publishers to work with a single organizational point of contact for entry into the library market. This content aggregation makes everything tick.
A collective would explicitly encourage book purchasing. Although “buy links” have been endorsed by some library organizations (including Open Library and Overdrive), this can be integrated at a deeper level. However many copies of a digital book are acquired by the collective and administered for use by the CA, there will be a deficit of the most attractive titles. There are a variety of reasons why scarcity at specific points on the demand curve is economically attractive for the collective, but it will clearly motivate sales of books from publishers or their designated retailers. Although library lending may be subtractive of some book purchasing, it is also additive. Users seeking to satisfy unmet demand in the marketplace will outnumber the cult of “freegans” who insist on free content and have learned to maneuver through the hoops of library lending.
Content aggregation on a single platform also enables the collection of user data from every subscriber library. Although there are obvious privacy concerns that must be attended, let us not be turn aside from the immense advantages that such data might present both users and content providers. Nor should we fail to recognize that users can be educated to assume responsibility for making decisions over the data they generate when they browse, borrow, subscribe, and buy. For users, it enables increasingly rich recommending and content discovery, a la Small Demons; it also encourages social reading services, a la ReadMill, many of which could be driven through APIs such as Spotify’s.
As a result, publishers, small and large, will wind up with something they have not previously possessed: analytics. Carefully prepared to preserve user privacy, still it becomes possible to chart patterns of book acquisition and consumption that heretofore only large retailers such as Amazon have been able to generate. Learning which books are read in conjunction with other books; by what kinds of readers (using anonymized profile data); and with what media — all become gist for a useful mill.
The most important strategic opportunity for publishers rests where it has never before existed: in essence, considering libraries to be their best retail outlet. To the extent that libraries encourage book purchasing by their patrons in addition to borrowing, publishers have an opportunity to redirect retailing to their preferred point of sale, which could be either direct to consumer or driven through the CA. The advantage of using the CA as a sales point is the aggregation of data for both publisher and reader; the benefits accrue to both. In return, the CA would receive a modest retailing fee to support operations. In either scenario, publishers would have a significant counterweight to larger companies that dominate online book purchasing, and for whom books — and media generally — are not necessarily a core service. What is important in this observation is not merely the availability of an alternative: It is that the alternative is founded upon an entirely different set of economic and market criteria.
What that means is that if market competition dwindles — for example, if a large bookselling chain is forced to ultimately close its doors — publishing is not left with one or two firms operating out of a commercial technology space for whom content is ancillary. Instead, they also have the ability to conduct business through a very different kind of not-for-profit collective that reaches into nearly every single community in the country — constituting a marketing and distribution model that could be replicated to a great extent internationally.
None of us perceive all of the answers that would deliver a future library. But we can begin to see the shadows on the ground of something that could be made to work — and not just for libraries, but for publishers as well. As the poet said, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” Let’s start.