Lurking in the midst of the discussions of libraries trying to obtain ebooks from publishers is a larger issue concerning not just control over ebook ownership, but the control over the delivery platform. If libraries rely on Overdrive, for example, to supply them ebook lending services, they’ve outsourced a critical piece of library infrastructure to an outside party. While this strategy is commonplace for electronic journals and databases, it’s still new enough in digital books that it draws speculation about alternative models.
That’s why a recent announcement of Califa – a library cooperative serving the great majority of the public library systems in the State of California – is intriguing. (HT to Gary Price’s InfoDocket). Califa has decided to create and host its own ebook lending platform, much like the Douglas County Library system and the Internet Archive before it, using its own Adobe Content Server to protect the ebook files with DRM. Califa envisions a pay-to-play model in which its member library systems can utilize its ebook hosting and lending platform.
Califa will license what content it must, but its preference is to acquire the content under ownership terms. It will permit borrowing of its ebooks, like print books, in a 1 loan/1 copy model, with the additional caveat, as articulated by Jamie LaRue of Douglas County, that it will not redistribute ebooks to other parties. Furthermore, Califa recognizes that frontlist books from the largest trade publishers are out of reach for now, and so will be focusing on small and independent publishers that have been consistently more receptive to alternative arrangements with libraries, and more prone to see the benefits of library marketing and promotion.
A direct library ebook ownership and management model is wildly different from the cloud based library system ebook vendors like Overdrive or 3M are providing. The premise that publishers or their distributors will be willing to vend books directly to libraries harks back to a very traditional model of library print inventory management – a model that in a digital age seems revolutionary. This is a path that the Internet Archive espouses as well, that every library should be able to host or support an ebook collection for its own community.
However, the Califa model illuminates some of the larger service quandaries with ebooks. One involves the power of aggregation. An individual or consortial ebook hosting service aggregates user behavior and circulation over the ebooks it has, but it can do no more — it remains blind to all the libraries whose systems it does not touch. The attraction of a vendor like Amazon is that it aggregates over tens of millions of user behaviors. That intelligence is not useful if a reader is performing a “known item” search where they know the title or author of a book, but if they are looking for a recommendation of something new to read, or a recommendation for a movie similar to a book they read, then a service like Amazon’s or Apple’s will provide a far superior experience. Apple and Amazon will have far more user data, and far more information about the content they are serving.
The merits of greater aggregation help motivate the interest in the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) serving as a national platform provider for ebooks. In addition to an improved ability to provide robust social features like recommending and enhanced community level support, DPLA would presumably also be able to use aggregated demand for added leverage in publisher negotiations. However, mounting a national level ebook platform is technically challenging, particularly given the range of ILS catalog integrations that would be considered requisite by local libraries, and the difficulties of providing complex ebook rights accounting combined with transparent support of patron authentication. Furthermore, DPLA would be entering a competitive market space as a not-for-profit, despite pre-existing interest from commercial firms.
Local library models like Califa’s are presented with additional market challenges. While not insurmountable, they are interwoven into how publishing works as an industry. Even though independent publishers may be receptive to the thought of providing their ebooks to libraries, they may not have them to provide — most publishers are reliant upon distributors to provide ebook files to retailers. Indeed, in many cases, the distributor or a content services firm may be responsible for final packaging of intermediate digital files into ebook products. Thus, a publisher would have to encourage its distributor to sell files on its behalf to a potentially large number of libraries who want to mount their own local hosting platforms.
This potentially asks distributors to compete against themselves. There’s a reason that Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and Overdrive develop library ebook platforms – they have the ebooks in the first place, and are therefore well positioned to sell hosted solutions to libraries. Thus, should publisher ask their distributors to sell their titles to libraries, distributors may suddenly find reasons why that would be ever so difficult. For example, although library platforms require extensive customer engagement, highly customized ebook vending is not something that most distributors conduct, in a market where a relatively small number of retailers handle the overwhelming majority of consumer digital sales. Libraries seeking their own titles may find themselves paying a premium price, irrespective of publisher wishes.
There’s one other party that has yet to put cards on the table. Integrated library systems (ILS) vendors like Innovative Interfaces, Polaris, Sirsi-Dynix, and Ex Libris could create their own ebook hosting platforms, seamlessly integrating ebook discovery directly into library catalog systems. Polaris and 3M recently announced a parternship which would streamline access for 3M’s hosted ebooks into Polaris, and similar agreements are under development between most ILS vendors and ebook platforms. However, the direct integration of an ebook serving platform into a hosted ILS solution would relieve libraries of ebook management, and provide an interesting balance between direct library ownership and control on one hand, and remote cloud based services that are a step further removed from the library patron on the other.
The downside to this path for ILS vendors is that they have to either form their own direct relationships with publishers to act as distributors to the library market or they have to place themselves in between distributors and libraries. This reprises the same agency problem faced by libraries who want to buy books from distributors, who are themselves interested in licensing access to those books via hosted platforms which provide them more control and, significantly, recurring revenue. The upside of an ILS-provided solution is that the library obtains more a better patron experience, working with a party whose technology they have more experience with than ebook distributors. That helps to sustain the value of ILS vendors at a time when open-source systems are getting closer to providing a full-range of functions.
Of course, whether any of these solutions will bear continued investment as ebook prices continue to fall, and customer acquisition of ebook titles become increasingly trivial, is an open question. Libraries may be creatively trying to figure out ways of patching the hole in the side of the Titanic, without realizing that too many of the ship’s watertight compartments have already been breached.