In recent library news, Penguin pulled all their books from OverDrive digital lending, joining Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Hachette in blocking digital lending of book titles. HarperCollins still holds on to their bafflingly arbitrary 25 lend limit.
Sound familiar? I'm sure it's been a topic among many librarians the past few weeks—and readers have been discussing it as well, probably along the same terms—namely, "WTFBBQ?"
I totally understand why Penguin got pissed. I do. OverDrive event patrons who wanted to borrow books were sent to Amazon to complete the lending transaction. This was likely not within the terms of Penguin’s contract with OverDrive, and the three companies couldn't work out a solution, so Penguin pulled their books. I get that. If it is not in the contract, then the contract is not working for one or both parties. That's why contracts are awesome and important, because they outline the terms of what should happen and what happens if those terms are not met.
So to me, it smells as if OverDrive screwed up, and Lord knows Amazon is like a honey badger: it really doesn't give a shit. "It just takes what it wants. Honey badger don't care." And I don't fault the honey badger for being how it is any more than I fault Amazon for doing what's in its best interests businesswise. In other words, I don't expect honey badgers or Amazon to be cuddly.
But here's my question: why is OverDrive the only lending operation for libraries for digital books? Why is it that if publishers pull books out of OverDrive, there isn't another operation available for digital lending as a substitution? Why is it OverDrive or nothing? The Penguin press release mentioned some kiosk from 3M. Have you seen one? I hear there might be one in a library in Kansas. It's like a unicorn! Has anyone used one of these mystical kiosks?
From what I can tell, once again a publisher or publishers find themselves in a situation where they don't like the one channel they have that brings their books to a large population, and because there are no other options, it's one or nothing. In this case, it's OverDrive. Why is there no other major option for library lending of digital books?
My guess? Because just as these large publishers do not fully appreciate the reader as their customer, those same Big Six publishers do not see libraries as their customers either. At library conferences last year, I saw a number of publishers talking about what books were coming out and what books were likely to be in high demand from patrons. But then these same publishers mention "friction" when it comes to lending digital books—which translates to me as "Please, promote and lend our books, but for God's sake, don't make it too easy." This makes no sense to me.
I did see two different sessions that turned into near-rallies at ALA National in New Orleans, some which almost became calls to arms among librarians to pushing back against those publishers who sought to limit lending to unrealistic and arbitrary numbers. Yet new data from an ALA surveys of library patrons seems to suggest that library patrons who borrow e-books buy books at a rate of two to one—meaning for every two digital books they borrow, they buy one.
Because I am not a librarian (I'm just a librarian fangirl), I don't have an answer to the questions I'm asking. I don't necessarily know the best alternative, but I spoke with one librarian who told me that there does exist a borrowing option for digital music that offers unlimited access and charges per download. Patron borrows music, library pays for that music. What is stopping a similar model or a similar technology for books? What do you think the ideal situation is for digital borrowing? What would work for your library?
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.