Libraries and Ebooks: What’s Going On?

Welcome to my first industry post of 2012. Hope everyone had a lovely holiday. This post is geared to the US market primarily, only because I have little knowledge how overseas libraries work. If you know how it works in the UK or other locations, please join in with your comments.


With all of the discussions, opinions, and analyses of ebooks these days, one of the aspects we don’t hear enough about are libraries and how they’re adapting to the e-verse. An article in PW recently discussed the situation from a library’s point of view and pointed out some issues that are impeding the growth of ebook borrowing.  As both an author and an avid user of libraries, I decided to approach it a little differently.

A large percentage of my readers, maybe even a majority, have borrowed my books from the library in the past, so I’m especially interested how and if library patrons are able to download my ebooks easily. So far, the answer is “kinda-sorta.” The only way I know that patrons can download ebooks is through Overdrive, and there seems to be some issues with Overdrive’s inventory, ie some libraries have titles that other libraries don’t. In other words, no consistency. Which is not a good thing for a mid-list author.


In addition, now there are competing programs, chiefly Amazon’s Prime Select Lending program. I’m curious if it will affect library borrowing, and if it does, why wouldn’t libraries want to be a part of it? I’m also curious how Overdrive became the leading supplier of ebooks to libraries. And why publishers are reluctant to partner with them now that Overdrive distributes Kindle-formatted books. And what about audio downloads– how will libraries deal with those? Especially when library budgets have been slashed, sometimes scarily so?


Best to go to the source, I always say, so here is a conversation with four librarians. They include the “Two Amys:” Amy Alessio (AA) and Amy Peterson (AP). Alessio is an author as well as the Teen Librarian at the Schaumburg Library in Illinois. Amy Peterson is the Head of Audiovisual Services at the same library. Melissa Morgan (MM) is a librarian in Northfield, Illinois.  And Mary Boone (MB) is the PR Coordinator at the Wood County District Public Library in Northern Ohio.

Clearly, we won’t be able to address all the issues today, but I hope the librarians reading this will weigh in with your comments. The conversation is just beginning.

Q: What’s the best way for an author to get their ebooks into libraries?

AA: Currently authors have to apply to the folks in charge of acquisition for consortiums or to Overdrive. I would suggest instead doing programs at libraries to help promote e-books or getting involved helping libraries. Staff and patrons will then help spread the word of mouth.

AP: I would suggest authors contact OverDrive directly to see if they can add their titles to the collection of eBooks available to libraries. Librarians are limited in terms of what can be added to the collection by what is in OverDrive’s Marketplace. That said, it is valuable for authors to pitch their eBooks to libraries, so there is demand for them, which could impact whether a title is included in the Marketplace or not.

The other way that I have seen for authors to get their eBooks into libraries is when libraries circulate the devices themselves and add content purchased from Amazon or another online retailer. I know there is a library in the Chicago area that circulates an eReader device that has been loaded with the work of local authors.

MM: Right now it seems to me that the only viable option is for an author and his/her publisher to make the e-book available to libraries through Overdrive or NetLibrary.

MB: Overdrive corners the market on providing eBooks to [public] libraries. They work through publishers, not individual authors (as near as I can tell). So, having your publisher’s catalog in Overdrive’s “Content Reserve” looks like the first step. Here’s the url for their page for publishers:

Q: How successful has Overdrive been? What should/shouldn’t they be doing?

AA: Overdrive has done lots of things well. They seem to understand the importance of reaching readers through the e-mediums and tries to put popular titles in patron hands.

AP: OverDrive has emerged as the clear leader in the provision of downloadable eBooks/eAudiobooks to the library market. There have been a number of bumps along the way, however, including some clunky interface problems and recently issues related to contracts they’ve entered into with publishers, which affects libraries’ ability to access titles.

MM: Overdrive has been successful both because it’s available on many devices (iphone/ipad, Nook, Kindle, Sony eReader, etc) and because it’s the best option for library patrons.  I think their product, MyMediaMall, is a bit clumsy, but usable once you’re accustomed to the process.  I try to set patrons’ expectations low when using it for the first time.  I recommend they set aside a couple of hours and keep a glass of wine nearby…  It seems to me that Overdrive is in a difficult position – balancing the competing interests of publishers, authors, libraries, device manufacturers, etc.  MyMediaMall works, but there’s significant room for improvement.  I frequently ask if patrons need a new career because I think there’s a huge opportunity to create a better method of lending ebooks to library patrons. In my fantasy library-land, patrons would be able to attach a card reader to their mobile devices and simply swipe their library card to download an ebook.

MB: Pretty darn successful, I think, again, by virtue of being the only game in town up till now. On the one hand they have managed to navigate satisfying most publishers’ concerns with copyright protection and Digital Rights Management issues, while building a large collection of e-media for libraries to “purchase” and the means to make that content accessible to available to library patrons. It will be interesting to see how the State Library of Kansas’ bid to claim full ownership of digital material leased from Overdrive in order to transfer it to 3M’s Cloud Library, an e-media provider introduced at last June’s ALA. Here’s a link to a story from last summer in Library Journal:

But, back to Overdrive. While they have been successful in keeping publishers (mostly) happy and building a decent inventory to offer libraries and the means for delivering that content, the end-user experience can be incredibly frustrating. Until recently, their support for librarians and library users has been convoluted and complicated. In truth, their support must cover help their own software, the third party software needed to download and transfer materials, and for dozens of devices. Still, not the most user friendly experience by any means.

I think Overdrive is learning in this regard, though. In the last year they have introduced 3 products that make for a better experience. From a library’s download catalog there is now a link to “my Help” which allows users to more effectively and efficiently focus on help for their particular OS and/or device. Also, they have introduced the Overdrive app for mobile devices and smart phones. Compared to what’s gone before, this makes reading or listening to an eBook on your phone or tablet a snap. And then, finally, Overdrive and Amazon worked out their differences so that Kindle formatted books are available. Borrowing a Kindle formatted book is incredibly easy (again, compared to what’s gone before).

Q: Should libraries form their own “collectives” to get ebooks to their patrons, or should they use existing book e-tailers like Amazon’s lending program?

AA: While most libraries have to use major book e-tailers and Overdrive for their magnitude and expertise I can imagine collectives in the future. Few libraries would currently have staff time to devote to developing a collective now, I would think

AP: Collectives might be something to consider in the future, although it seems very time-consuming both in terms of establishing relationships with publishers (many of whom are already not allowing their eBooks to be lent by libraries) as well as creating some kind of infrastructure to distribute the eBooks to our patrons.

MM: At present we do purchase ebook titles as a consortium of local-area libraries.  I don’t know how to answer the question about using an e-tailer like Amazon’s lending program.  I think there would have to be a completely different model of lending than that of the Kindle owner’s lending library.  To me it seems more like a method of providing good service to AMZN customers than providing an effective method of lending ebooks.

MB: I’m moving out of my comfort range here, Libby. My library belongs to a consortium (collective?) of libraries which contracts with Overdrive. Materials we purchase are available to the other 90-odd consortium members, making our eBook collection an “instant” ILL experience in some ways. And, the State Library of Ohio also maintains an e-media collection that folks with cards. I know there are libraries that lend devices like the Kindle and Nook, and so I would guess are purchasing content directly. It’s up to the library, but it may make more sense for larger libraries than medium or small libraries. Perhaps it’s a question of economics–the expense of maintaining the device and the rapid rate of change in hardware and in the industry.

Q: What’s your library’s history been with ebooks so far (percentages of borrows, etc)… What do you predict for 2012 and beyond?

AA: I do not have statistics for this, but know we’ve seen a sharp increase in the last year. I would imagine we will have even more borrowers though the waiting times for titles will be longer. There is a learning curve as people realize they have to wait for copies just like for print.

AP: We have had OverDrive for six years, and we have seen dramatic increases in eBook borrowing in the last year. Until May 2011, the eAudiobooks constituted the majority of the downloadable checkouts. eBooks now account for double the number of eAudiobook checkouts on a monthly basis, and I expect that trend to continue as the popularity of eReaders/Tablets continues to grow. Our biggest challenge is providing content for patrons. We are part of a consortium for our eBook collection, which is a positive in terms of sharing the cost of the materials, but is a downside when having to share those materials with so many more people. I suspect that libraries will have to shift some portion of their collection budget away from print and into eBooks – although it’s complicated because the checkouts for eMedia are still a very small percentage of the overall circulation, so both print and eBook versions of popular titles will continue to have to be purchased.

MM: We’ve noticed strong growth in ebook lending since Overdrive became available to iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch owners and then another huge surge of borrowing once it was also available to Kindle owners. I expect the growth will be exponential for 2012.   We did, however, get a notice in late December (right after Christmas, in fact) that we had larger than expected number of patrons borrowing ebooks for Kindles and to please be patient with slow download times.  The combination of low-priced Kindles, Overdrive compatibility and gift giving season resulted in lots of ebook lending in quite a short timeframe.

MB: I’d say we were slowly growing eBook readership until last Christmas (when prices dropped and eBook readers were popular presents), and then boom! like every other public library in the country saw a hugh spike in demand for eBooks. Were I at work, I could look at the numbers, but I think it’s safe to say downloads doubled almost over night. And, I think we are going to see a similar jump in use and growth this year. My library has two technology classes on the calendar for early January, one on computer skills for job seekers, the other on using eBooks. When I left the library last week for my time off this week, I checked the registration numbers for both. The eBook class had 3x the number of people registered. eBooks use will continue to grow, I think.

Q: In Canada and the UK, there’s a system of royalties in place where the author is actually paid based on the # of borrows from a library. Should we do that here? 

AA: I can see both sides of this issue as an author and as a librarian. Many times folks check out materials without reading them. I would think the set up to get to that system would be difficult. I can see how authors would benefit from this system and it would increase the dialogue between libraries and authors in many positive ways.

AP: I agree with Amy says here but unfortunately, I think some lesser known authors would potentially suffer under this arrangement unless they did create a strong buzz about their work among librarians and the public in general.

 MM: I like the idea of paying authors based on the # of borrows from a library and wonder if the publisher pays for that.  It certainly seems that it’s an effective way of recognizing the number of readers as well as the number of sale

Q: Audible is making a HUGE effort to expand their inventory of audiobooks for sale. However they do not sell to libraries. Why not? Would your library buy direct from them? Do you think Overdrive will partner with Audible (which is owned by Amazon) for audiobooks as they did with Amazon for ebooks? 

AP: them the exclusive rights to some audiobook titles, but I am just guessing. It’s especially frustrating when an Audible-exclusive downloadable is the only format of an audiobook available (there is no CD version), since I then can’t make it available to my patrons. As far as buying directly from Audible, if there was an infrastructure set up where we could distribute those eAudiobooks to patrons then yes, I think that would be a possibility.

Given the recent partnership between Amazon and OverDrive to allow Kindle-compatible eBooks to be checked out to library patrons, it’s conceivable that a similar arrangement could be worked out. I haven’t heard anything to that effect, however. Audible, like Amazon (which, of course owns Audible), is (by and large) a retailer rather than a publisher, so there could be some issues in terms of the agreements they’ve made with publishers to distribute the titles.

MM: I haven’t heard anything about Overdrive and Audible working together, but I am rather far removed from that rumor mill.

MB: Personally, as a consumer, I love Audible, and have been a subscriber for about 5 – 6 years. It’s fast and easy to use, everything Overdrive’s current audio download experience is not. My guess (and it’s most definitely a guess) is that Audible doesn’t sell to libraries because of DRM issues, and publisher restraints. I haven’t heard anything at all about a potential Overdrive / Audible deal. But since Audible is owned by Amazon . . . who knows? It took Overdrive a long time to work out the eBook deal with Amazon, and an even longer time to work a deal with Apple so that Overdrive audio materials could be played on iPods (and there are still a number of audio files from Overdrive that can’t be played on Macs). Sure, everything else being equal, we’d buy from them. While most of our materials are bought through jobbers (e.g, Baker and Taylor), we routinely buy from local book stores, Amazon, etc., to add materials to our collections that our patrons want.

Q: What about Amazon’s new KDP Select program, in which customers can “borrow” an eligible book indefinitely? How will that impact libraries?

AP: I’m not really familiar with the Amazon Select program, but I know they are allowing people to access one free eBook per month through their Prime membership. As I understand it, however, the titles included are restricted and some large publishers are not participating, so I don’t really see this as cutting in to the eBook borrowing from our patrons.

MM: I most certainly do like the idea that Amazon Prime members are able to share their personal Kindle libraries with other members.  It seems like a logical extension of AMZN’s customer service to its priority customers.  At this time I don’t know how much it will affect library ebook lending since the two groups of people seem separate to me.  I see AMZN Prime members/Kindle owners as a distinctly different group than library patrons who read ebooks.  Right or wrong, I see the former as a group of readers who weren’t regular library patrons and have changed from buying print books to buying ebooks.  The latter seems, to me, to be somewhat unwilling to purchase ebooks since they’re used to borrowing print books.  The Kindle is another way of reading books, rather than a replacement.It’s much easier for me to sell the Overdrive product to new Kindle owners because they haven’t been seduced by the ease of purchasing ebooks directly from Amazon.  The reverse is a very hard sell because there are so many, many, many extra steps involved in borrowing a library ebook from Overdrive than buying ebooks directly from Amazon.

MB: It boils down to a matter of convenience and ease of use for library users/consumers. If a user finds the experiencer of checking out and downloading e-media from the library too frustrating (and in the past many have), she will gravitate towards the service that’s easiest to use. I think Overdrive is catching on to this, hence their moves towards trying to simplify their help pages I talked about earlier and developing the Overdrive app. But having said, that there’s still room for both, I think. This from a librarian who buys as many (perhaps more) personal books (traditionally bound and eBook) as she borrows from her library.

BTw, Please keep in mind these are the individual’s opinions. They are not necessarily representing their libraries’ viewpoints.

OK… Ebook Authors and Librarians… Your turn….

PS OF course, just after I uploaded this post, I saw an article on The Passive Voice about 3M and how they are positioning themselves to be a distributor of ebooks to libraries. And a direct competitor to Overdrive. Does anyone know anything about them? Comments?