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Libraries And E-Lending: The 'Wild West' Of Digital Licensing?

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 8:40 pm

Have you ever borrowed an e-book from a library? If the answer is no, you're a member of a large majority. A survey out Thursday from the Pew Internet Project finds that only 5 percent of "recent library users" have tried to borrow an e-book this year.

About three-quarters of public libraries offer e-books, according to the American Library Association, but finding the book you want to read can be a challenge — when it's available at all.

Brian Kenney is the director of the White Plains Public Library in New York. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish about a library patron who wanted to check out a digital copy of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.

"It was a middle-aged guy, you know, had a high techno-comfort zone, he was carrying his iPad, and he approached the desk carrying the Isaacson bio and said, 'How do I download this,' " Kenney recalls. "And it was the classic case where I had to explain to them, 'Well, sir, actually, you can't download that from here.' And then ensues the discussion why, as though somehow or other the library was stupid or failing in its job."

In fact, Kenney says, it's not a failure on the part of the library — Simon and Schuster, which published the book, would not license it to the library for download.

You might think about all this as the Wild West of digital licensing — a frontier environment where every publisher has its own set of rules. Among the six biggest companies, Simon and Schuster currently licenses none of its e-books to libraries. The company says it simply hasn't found a model that works.

Only two publishing houses, HarperCollins and Random House, sell their most popular books to libraries in digital form, and as Kenney explains, those companies' models have their own quirks.

"HarperCollins uses a model where we can license a book, and we have 26 circulations for that one book," he says. "It is the same model that we have in print: one book, one user at a time." But after 26 people have read that book, the library must pay a fee — usually $25 to $35 — to renew the license. Kenney says libraries initially found the idea off-putting, but "now it's a model I work with. It makes a degree of sense."

But the Random House model is quite different, Kenney says, with new titles costing up to $100 to license. "It might make some sense with a huge best-seller, but libraries buy broadly — we buy first authors, we buy lesser-known memoirs, we want readers to come in and encounter authors and voices for the first time," Kenney says. And splashing out $100 on a book that may not get checked out very often just isn't an effective use of the library's money. "So it puts us in a funny place, that model."

Will loosening up e-lending rules ultimately hurt book sales? Kenney says that's not necessarily the case. "Because they're licensed, I would argue publishers have an opportunity here to be creative," he says. "The HarperCollins model is one interesting model; I would certainly entertain a variety of other models from publishers. ... This is a very different world that we're in, and I think that it's an opportunity for publishers and librarians to sort of work together to figure out, how can we sustain readers? How can publishers thrive? How can libraries also thrive?"

In a world where many people are using their tablet computers to catch up on Game of Thrones or the latest Kardashian antics, Kenney argues, "public libraries, I mean, we're out there really pushing the product of these publishers, and I can't imagine another industry in this country that has that type of a relationship."

But libraries also need to be open to experimentation, he adds. "They need to hear different solutions coming in the marketplace from publishers and just say, 'OK, we're gonna give that a shot ... things are changing, and the publishers need to experiment. We might not think that what they're doing might even be working, but we need to give it a fair shot.' "

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

And we've been talking about publishing and the challenges of the digital transition. And one those of challenges is playing out in public libraries. Have you ever borrowed an e-book from a library? If the answer is no, you are a member of a large majority.

A survey out today from the Pew Internet Project finds that only 5 percent of recent library users have borrowed an e-book this year, even though more than 75 percent of libraries are offering e-books. That's according to the American Library Association. One reason that few people are borrowing e-books: It isn't easy to find what you want.

NED BROWN: Just type in John Adams.

SALLY BROWN: Is it the title?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is that part of the title?

CORNISH: At the Oro Valley Branch Library in the suburb of Tucson, Arizona, a gray-haired couple, Ned and Sally Brown, are finding that out. They are, with technical help from a computer instructor, searching in the library system for David McCullough's best-selling biography of the second U.S. president.

BROWN: C-U-L-L-O-C-H, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: G-H.

BROWN: O-U-G-H. They didn't find it on that. You didn't find it either?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. I'd say not.

CORNISH: John Adams, it turns out, is not available as an e-book. The Browns give up on the search for now, but sometimes patrons are much more persistent.

BRIAN KENNEY: You know, as a middle-aged guy, I have a high techno comfort zone.

CORNISH: This is Brian Kenney. He's the director of the White Plains Public Library in New York, and he told us about the time that a patron demanded a digital copy of the biography of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

KENNEY: He, you know, was carrying his iPad, and he approached the desk carrying the Isaacson bio and said, how do I download this? And it was the classic case where I had to explain to them, well, sir, actually, you can't download that from here. You know, and then ensues the discussion why, as though somehow or other the library was stupid or failing in its job.

And, you know, of course, it's funny with the Steve Jobs book sort of bittersweet because you got to figure a certain amount of the audience for that book is going to want to be naturally reading it on their iPad or iPhone. And that's a discussion that's happening all the time.

CORNISH: So why was it difficult to get that Steve Jobs biography?

KENNEY: It simply wasn't available from Simon and Schuster. It wasn't a book that they would license to us digitally.

CORNISH: Consider it the Wild West of digital licensing. Each publisher is developing its own set of rules. Among the six biggest publishers, Simon and Schuster, which Brian Kenney just mentioned, doesn't license any e-books to libraries. The company says it simply hasn't found a model that works. Publishers have expressed concerns about piracy and about e-lending eating into sales if customers can download an e-book from a library with just a click of a button. Only two publishing houses, HarperCollins and Random House, will license their most popular books to libraries in digital form. And as Kenney explains, they have completely different ways of doing it.

KENNEY: HarperCollins uses a model where we can license a book. And we have 26 circulations. It is the same model that we have in print. One book, one user at a time.

CORNISH: But 26 licenses means after 26 people read that e-book, what happens to it?

KENNEY: We have to relicense it. We have to go back and pay that $25, $35 whatever that set fee is. You know, it's a model that when it first came along - I think it may have been 18 months ago - I think libraries are kind of put off by it. Now, it's a model I work with. It makes a degree of sense. I'm glad to see HarperCollins sort of try to make things work with libraries.

CORNISH: And it's very different from the Random House model.

KENNEY: Yeah.

CORNISH: That model essentially says that they'll license books to you but at very different prices.

KENNEY: Exactly. Typically, a front list, that is a new book from Random House will cost 80, 90, 100, even more. And it might make some sense with a huge bestseller, but, you know, libraries buy broadly. We buy first authors. We buy lesser-known memoirs. We want readers to come in and encounter authors and voices for the first time. And when you buy a book for $100 that you think, oh, this is a memoir that we really need to introduce to our readers and you look six months later and it's gone out twice, that's just not a great use of public funds.

CORNISH: Now we heard earlier from an industry consultant named Mike Shatzkin, and we asked him for his view on this whole issue. Here's a bit of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

MIKE SHATZKIN: When everybody has broadband and a device, everybody has access to more reading material than any library has ever offered for free. Publishers are looking at that world that's coming and can see a day when libraries won't be funded to keep the building open. But if they own 100,000 e-books with unlimited lending rights, they're going to still be mixing up with the commerce that publishers are at that time trying to do selling books.

CORNISH: Brian, what's your reaction?

KENNEY: You know, Mike Shatzkin's an interesting fellow and a real futurist. And it's entertaining to talk about what the world is going to look like in five or 10 years. I'm not sure that any of us can really do that in any way, especially when you're looking at e-books, which is changing so rapidly.

CORNISH: But at the heart of his argument is something that publishers still seem to be afraid of, which is that this will hurt their sales.

KENNEY: Well, because they're licensed, you know, I would argue, publishers have an opportunity here to be creative. And I think that it's an opportunity for publishers and librarians to sort of work together to figure out how can we sustain readers, how can publishers thrive, how can libraries also thrive in this environment.

You know, most of the country - well, a lot of the country wants to catch up on "The Wire" and watch the first season of "Game of Thrones" or sit at home and watch the Kardashians, which is all fine. But public libraries, I mean, we're out there really pushing the product of these publishers. And I can't imagine another industry in this country that has that type of a relationship.

CORNISH: Brian, this isn't the first time that the publishing industry and librarians have clashed when it comes to developing technologies. What do you think libraries can do to try and smooth this process?

KENNEY: Good question. I think that, you know, what librarians need to embrace is that things are changing. And the publishers need to experiment. We may not think that what they're doing might even be working, but we need to give it a fair shot.

CORNISH: Brian Kenney, thank you so much for talking with us.

KENNEY: And thanks so much for the opportunity.

CORNISH: Brian Kenney is the director of the White Plains Public Library. He was talking with us about one of many challenges as books go digital. And there are no easy answers. As Kenney writes in a column for Publishers Weekly: Inherent in the digital book is the promise of change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.