Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ebooks For Libraries

Joe sez: I recently got an interesting email from a library in Texas.

In short, they're setting up their own internal check-out system for ebooks, and are seeking to buy ebooks directly from authors and publishers.

I asked if they wouldn't mind doing a guest blog discussing some of the issues libraries are now facing with the rising popularity of ebooks. They graciously replied, and here it is...

Mike and Linda: Thanks to Joe for giving us a chance to talk to you about libraries and eBooks!  We’re Michael Saperstein and Linda Stevens, librarians from Harris County Public Library, a large public library system in Houston, Texas.  Please grab the beverage of your choice and find a comfy chair, because we’ve tried to summarize, but this might take a minute.

First, if you haven’t been to the public library in a while, it has changed quite a bit.  Rather than being on shush patrol, you’ll find librarians teaching eReader classes, performing storytimes and early literacy activities, helping jobseekers, playing video games with teens…you get the picture.  Then there’s the books – paper, audio or electronic, we buy them, we promote them, and we connect them with readers, in person and online.

Now for the issues:


Libraries are not able to purchase all of the eBooks we would like to purchase due to publisher and author concerns about copyright protection in the digital format.  Only two of the big six publishers will sell eBooks to libraries, and those pricing models either limit us to a low number of checkouts or charge us more than twice the retail price for a book.  Very few picture books are available for us to purchase, even though small children are a large part of our customer base and we often use digital books in storytimes.  With adult fiction titles, we can’t always offer complete series because of format availability or publisher restrictions.  Some publishers would even like to implement a plan that would force people to come to the library to check out eBooks, rather than being able to do it online, which kind of defeats the purpose.  Librarians are also making the adjustment to focus on providing access for our customers through leasing or subscription, rather than only owning items to be a permanent part of a collection.

Better Public Experience 

Because of the way we have to purchase electronic content, our customers often have to jump back and forth online through multiple access points, instead of simply finding a book and clicking to check it out.  This can make the borrowing experience quite confusing and complex.  Then add the confusion about which formats match which devices.  We’re not just providing materials for one type of device, our customers use Kindles and Nooks and iPads and cell phones and devices we probably haven’t heard of yet.  We are constantly learning about all of these devices because we are now free tech support for the public.  Our customers show up with their new eReader in a box, and we teach them how to use it.

Collection Decisions

Public libraries have always selected print books based on professional reviews and public demand.  This doesn’t always work with eBooks.  With eBooks, we have to focus on availability and public interest.  We are also rethinking our relationship with self-publishing.  Many libraries, such as ours, are now looking for ways to purchase eBooks directly from authors and independent publishers.  Keep in mind that this is all in a time of reduced funding and we’re trying to build a huge, new, popular digital collection while maintaining a popular and relevant print collection.

Library Benefits 

So what does the library have to offer?  Book borrowing habits are changing, mainly because of eBooks.  People are more open to impulse browsing and discovery of new authors and titles and the library provides the collection and staff to aid them in this discovery.  Once they’ve discovered a new favorite, the quest for reading gratification leads to backlist purchases.  (We speak from personal experience on this.)  Libraries can never afford to purchase in sufficient quantities to discourage sales.  We don’t just house a collection in our buildings or on our websites; we actively promote reading and books, no matter the format.
We’ve probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about libraries and eBooks, but please feel free to contact either of us for more information. We can be reached at

Joe sez: I like libraries. I like librarians. I like innovation.

So I sat down and had a think, and then called up my frequent collaborator Blake Crouch and bounced some ideas off of him.

This is what we came up with.

Blake and I are willing to sell our entire ebook catalog to the Harris County Public Library, and to any other libraries that are interested, under these terms:

1. Ebooks are $3.99

2. No DRM.

3. The library only needs to buy one ebook of a title, and then they can make as many copies as they need for all of their patrons and all of their branches.

4. The library owns the rights to use that ebook forever.

5. The library can use it an any format they need; mobi, epub, pdf, lit, etc. And when new formats arise, they're’re free to convert it to the new format.

In short, the library buys one copy, and never has to buy it again.

Now I'll take questions. I'm sure they'll be a few.

Q: Joe, that's insane! You're only charging $3.99 an ebook? That ebook can be read thousands of times!

A: Good. I hope it is.

Q: And they can make copies!? Shouldn't you at least make them buy multiple copies of each ebook?

A: Why? Ebooks cost nothing to copy and distribute. Once a library purchases a copy, it should be able to make as many copies as its branches and partons need. How cool would it be if you never had to wait for a book at the library because had already been checked out? My ebooks will always be available, all the time.

Q: But you're losing sales!

A: No I'm not. They bought a copy. They can do what they want with it. And my hope is because I don't have restrictions, and keep my costs low, the library will continue to buy my new ebooks as I release them. There are a lot of libraries in the US, and a lot more globally. If I sell every library one of my ebooks for $3.99, that's a nice amount of money.

Q: Don't you think your sales will suffer if readers can get all of your ebooks at the library, for free?

A: No. Readers can already get my paper books at the library, and that hasn't seemed to hurt my paper sales.

Q: But ebooks are different! People can check-out one of your ebooks online! They don't even have to visit the library to do it!

A: Though there is overlap, it's my guess that library patrons and people browsing Amazon for ebooks are two different types of readers. In a global marketplace, I don't expect to ever run out of readers. In fact, if a lot of libraries purchase my ebooks, I may become more well-known with readers, which could increase sales.

Q: But what about piracy!

A: As I've said many times, I'm okay with file sharing. That's why none of my self-pubbed ebooks have DRM. There's no fighting piracy. But you can still make a nice living by making your work easily available and affordable.

Q: But what happens when some new ebook device comes out with a new format? You're missing your chance to sell your books to the same library.

A: If they already bought one of my ebooks, they should be able to do what they want with it, including converting it to new formats.

Personally, I find it reprehensible that publishers put restrictions on ebooks, especially for libraries.

Q: But no one else is doing this! If you do this, you'll drag everyone else down with you! You'll ruin the library market for publishers and their authors!

A: Actually, what I'm doing is forcing publishers to be competitive. Why should libraries be punished with high prices and restrictions? Why should people who can't afford books be punished?

I like libraries. I like librarians. They deserve a break.

Q: I'm a librarian, and we want to do something similar. How do we get started?

A: It is my understanding that Harris County is one of the first libraries doing this. Get in touch with them, and  I'm sure they can offer advice.

Then email me for instructions on how to buy my ebooks and Blake's. We're working on creating a simple contract and purchase order.

Also, please spread the word and tell other libraries what we're doing. The more libraries that do this, the more authors who will join in and do the same thing Blake and I are doing.

I'd love to be the first author to sell directly to libraries. And I have a feeling I won't be the last.