Digital Books and Libraries: The Great Debate

Sep 12, 2019


When a library patron borrows an ebook from the library, does that person...

  • become more likely to purchase the book?
  • become less likely to purchase the book?
  • become more likely to purchase other books, either by that author or others?
  • become less likely to purchase other books, either by that author or others?

Different Viewpoints

Right now, within the publishing industry, you have major players arguing in defense of various sides of this scenario. Macmillan, a large trade publisher, enacted a new policy limiting libraries to purchasing a single copy of new titles for library distribution and creating an eight-week embargo on additional copies of that title sold to libraries. Other trade publishers have enacted similar policies limiting access to new titles to libraries and library patrons in different ways.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent asserted in a memo issued by the company to the publisher's authors, illustrators, and agents that 45% of ebook reads in the United States are currently being borrowed for free from libraries. That statistic has been, predictably, contested.

Libraries and Book-buying Habits

My grandmother introduced me to libraries when I was young. She loved to go, peruse all the various books, read a bit of this one or flip through a few pages of that one, before leaving with at least a couple of books in hand. She would usually read these to completion, although sometimes she would find ones she didn't like, and wouldn't feel compelled to finish those. The books would get returned, finished or not, to the library, and the process would begin all over again.

So, you might ask: Who in my family always bought the most books?

My grandmother. Yes, the same grandmother that frequented the library consistently.

It’s no coincidence that my grandmother also received more books as birthday and Christmas gifts than anyone else in my family.

So the person in my life who introduced me to libraries and visited them consistently throughout her whole life was the same person who bought the most books while also being the person who inspired others to purchase the most books on her behalf.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), this is more than just an anecdote. The ALA claim that library patrons are, generally, more likely to spend money on purchasing books than non-library-goers. In a recent study by Library Journal of millennial library patrons, 60% later purchased a copy of a book they borrowed from the library. Further, 77% of these same library patrons purchased additional titles from authors they discovered at the library.

Even if the reverse were true – and libraries were directly costing publishers money with every new title that comes out – publishers should still view the partnership with libraries as an essential component of being a good corporate citizen.

Never mind that libraries aren't one-size-fits-all – some are urban, some are rural, some are large and some are small. The Macmillan policy, while enacting embargoes on books for a period of eight weeks, also provides perpetual access for libraries for the first time. Other policies offered by different publishers vary, most of which offer only access for a one-year or two-year span of time. As libraries play an archival role for their communities, they would prefer to be able to offer perpetual access, if the price is right.

A Worthy Partner

The relationship between publishers, libraries, and readers should be built on a foundation of trust. Publishers need to trust that libraries are a worthy partner and that working with worthy partners inevitably leads to greater revenue, even if over a longer-term period of time. And both publishers and libraries need to trust that readers will act in ways that will ultimately support both.

Digital books – whether ebooks or audiobooks – give libraries the opportunity to serve their patrons in new ways that enhance accessibility. Publishers should provide uninhibited support of these efforts, knowing that the more people they can get their books in front of, the more fans they'll create that will go on and purchase more books than they otherwise would have.


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