Unsubscribing to the Library

Peter Brantley -- December 14th, 2012

Although it is not a popular opinion, I believe that library ebook borrowing erodes ebook sales, at least modestly, particularly of frontlist titles, net of whatever positive marketing effect libraries have in introducing new books and authors to readers. Obviously, it would be useful to verify this with solid data, but it is damnably difficult to construct a reliable instrument with control cases. Determining whether (and how) innovative, alternative models of ebook retailing might impact both publishers and libraries bears further examination, and recently I have started thinking about the possible impact of ebook subscription services.

Most considerations of library e-book lending take into account the potential commercial impact on digital book markets, as well as consumer expectations of the e-books we buy. Without question, there are gaping holes in ebook functionality that frustrate readers. For example, the inability to lend an e-book I’ve purchased to my wife is a maddening display of pecuniary greed that diminishes the overall value of the publishing sector.

When it comes to the market impact of library e-book lending, there are many factors to bear in mind. One is the suggestion that potentially losing some frontlist sales while profiting from reader introductions to more authors and books is a worthwhile trade, ultimately smoothing the revenue curve across publishers’ available inventory. Many publishers, however, believe that community services such as Goodreads already do a good enough job with recommendations, while delivering more efficient and stronger direct sales.

Brian O’Leary, meanwhile, has convincingly argued that libraries are the first, best defense against piracy, bringing readers into the market who would not otherwise buy copies, and that failure to accommodate the demand for borrowing a free e-book, however inefficiently, would engender far worse consequences in consumer behavior than losing a modest number of sales from library lending. But so far, the focus of the current discussion on e-books has failed to examine truly alternative measures, like subscription access.

A much-discussed option for publishers is a subscription service to a comprehensive set of books for a modest fee, usually near $10 a month for a base level membership, with streaming access to titles that are convertible to downloadable ebook sales. This “Spotify-for-e-books” approach has seen recent entrants including 24Symbols, Jellybooks, and most recently Oyster, joining stalwarts Safari Books Online in technical literature, Tor (to an extent) in scifi/fantasy, and Harlequin in romance. In a kissing-cousins effort, Bilbary is attempting to marry borrowing from public libraries with publisher compensation via an innovative, subsidized rental model. It is also worth recalling that Google was entertaining the idea of eventual consumer subscription access to the Google Books library in its defeated settlement proposals. And Amazon, of course, could enter this market with rather trivial effort.

Thus far, however, no general trade book subscription effort has emerged, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The obvious challenge is establishing a deep, broad-enough list of titles to induce a large enough number of subscribers to join, and the appropriate rights for older backlist titles may not be present. In addition, the revenue question gets sticky once readers have been converted to subscribers. The economics are not simple, and the only thing that obviates the same, exact problem that libraries now face (the belief that library lends lead to lost book sales) is if you can attract enough people as subscribers who would otherwise not be reading at all, or otherwise reading at the base threshold of whatever membership level you can up-sell them into.

Nevertheless, there is a growing realization by publishers that setting up consumer-facing retail relationships as an alternative to Amazon’s monopsony has its benefits. This is evident in the hard slog that start-up Bookshout is encountering as it attempts to provide a vendor-neutral cloud-based bookshelf for readers. It is also evident in the launch of the beta-status Ownshelf, which is similarly attempting to crack the proprietary media silos of Amazon, Apple, and to a lesser extent Google.

Quixotically, the existence of these start-ups is reliant on the platforms created by the technology giants whose retailing arms they seek to interpose: if it weren’t for iOS and Android, and the growing ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, these start-ups would have no chance. Unless Apple, Amazon, and Google have the gumption to eliminate all alternative e-readers from their app stores (which just might warrant a wee bit of interest from the Department of Justice) there is some room to maneuver.

But therein also lies the catch: any subscription service from publishers can’t simply rest on the laurels of a compelling list with attractive membership levels, and effective marketing. They must be able to bridge the reader, device, and catalog. In the sector of technology literature, for example, it is not for nothing that Safari Books Online hired the Threepress team that developed the Ibis Reader web application. Look for more of this in the future.

For publishers, offering a subscription alternative would have another outcome: it would make library borrowing unattractive. In other words, an effective subscription book service would nudge one of the most attractive segments of the library population into a consumer market: heavy readers, who heretofore have accepted the hassles of library borrowing rather than face the monetary burden of having to purchase individual titles. By delivering these heavy readers into a marketplace, subscription models could potentially leave libraries serving as the public community hospitals of the ebook market.

The key question is whether creating this alternative market is worthwhile for publishers. Rational publishers might recognize the benefits of moving avid readers from libraries into the marketplace through subscription models, as well as opening up a narrow wedge against Amazon. A subscription could also alleviate some piracy issues, because if there are ready market options, consumers will flock to those in most cases, rather than deal with downloading non-reflowable PDFs or uncorrected OCR’ed EPUBs from rogue digital book sites. On the flip side, a subscription service might give final proof to O’Leary’s insight that there is a market for content whose price is zero, forcing that small sector into the grey net by removing the library option.

For libraries, the emergence of e-book subscriptions may not be good news. A thriving subscription market might enervate the viability of libraries in ebook lending. Or, it might not. Perhaps library markets could be effectively married with subscription models, despite the costs of managing the synergy. But that would take a degree of flexibility and nimbleness on both sides of the ebook aisle that I have yet to see.

One thought on “Unsubscribing to the Library

  1. Michael Giltz

    If libraries are so damaging to the book publishing industry, how come they’ve both flourished side by side throughout the past 100+ years? The current woes of publishing are not here because libraries want to be able to offer the ebook format alongside hardcover, paperback and audio to their users. Libraries are a hugely important market for midlist and small press titles, as well as major titles from major publishers; libraries turn people into lifelong passionate readers and heavy users of the library also buy books. If people want a free copy of a current bestseller, there are many easier ways than waiting on a list for an ebook from your library — assuming the book is even available in that format, which it probably isn’t. Discouraging use of the library for people who don’t or can’t pay is foolish because it pushes them away from legal and fair markets to illegal ones. Libraries are not the enemy of publishing.

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