Monday, August 17, 2015

Ebooks and Libraries and Self-Pubbed Authors

In a recent blog post, I briefly mentioned that the ebook library market is currently devoid of any key players as far as indies are concerned.

I've known this for a while, and came up with a business plan to fill this void. But it hasn't been easy.

Well, technically, for me it has been pretty easy. I brainstorm ideas, occasionally do some promo, and fun stuff. For my business partner, August Wainwright, it's been one challenge after another. For over a decade, the ebook library market has been the wild wild west. Each library or library system has been forced to reinvent the wheel in order to offer their patrons ebooks. They've been given one-sided deals by big publishers and distributors, have no universal way of buying, cataloging, hosting, or lending ebooks, and have been hamstrung by a myriad technological, business, and monetary roadblocks.

And that's just the library end of things. The indie author has also been unable to quickly and easily get titles into libraries. Many authors want to reach library patrons so much they're willing to give away their ebooks for free (even though the company that does so charges libraries for those same books--is that insane or what?).

To help authors understand more about the current dilemmas facing libraries, August and I did a long post on www.ebooksareforever.com. Here's an excerpt, along with some Q & A.

As EAF gets closer to an official launch later this year, we wanted to take an opportunity to weigh-in on a few of the more important aspects of the relationship between indie authors and libraries.

Something we’ve continuously attempted to convey during our beta period is that the consumer marketplace and library marketplace are two entirely different entities, and as such, need to be approached from different strategic angles.

This article discusses a few of those details, and is meant to be a first step towards building a knowledge base that both indie authors/publishers and libraries can reference in pursuit of a long-term, sustainable relationship.

LIBRARY INTEREST AND MARKETING

Librarians have told us that they are slightly overwhelmed with the idea of having to discuss ebook acquisition with indie authors. We’ve heard stories about how libraries will set up booths at conferences and trade shows, and a vast majority of the people who seek them out are indie authors wanting to get their books into the library.

A few even admitted their response eventually defaulted to “Add your books to Smashwords, and we can look for them through Overdrive”, when in reality, the likelihood of that process ever playing out is very small.

This is eye-opening for many different reasons.

First, because it demonstrates the true amount of work required for librarians to interact with indie authors at scale.

Think about it like this:

If a librarian is asked about a popular title by a few patrons, he/she may attempt to source the book. Let’s assume the book was published by a small independent press. Within a few back-and-forth conversations, the librarian will not only be able to inquire about the desired book, but will also gain insight and easy access to all of the other books available from that small publisher.

This effect is amplified the larger the publisher is. If they target a publisher with thousands of titles, a relatively small amount of effort could result in many new books for their patrons.

However, when looked at in reference to indie authors - all of which act as individual publishers - each of these interactions is completely separate of all others.
This presents a HUGE hurdle for libraries.

Second, multiple librarians have said they are more than a bit dismayed that they are approached so many times with the same common pitch by indie authors. This pitch, from what we’ve been told, amounts to “You should add my books to your library.” or “Patrons would love my books.”, and nothing much else.

No marketing materials. No thought-out plan. Not even a summary or description of their titles or series.

This obviously doesn’t represent libraries’ interactions with ALL indie authors, but indie authors need to have a tight presentation to be taken seriously by libraries, as well as an easy route into those libraries, just as libraries need an easy way to attain wanted titles for their catalogs. Reducing friction as much as possible should be a priority.

Right now, we’re working closely with acquisition librarians to create this framework, and we’re working to make the process simple for both parties.

DISCOVERABILITY AND ROYALTIES

Discoverability is a common buzzword right now. Every conversation pertaining to indies and their success (or lack thereof) will contain discoverability as a major point of interest.

Many of the authors we’ve spoken with rightly look at libraries and their patrons as an opportunity to extend readership into new areas. Additionally, some have noted that they’d be willing to forego royalties because what they’re most concerned with is discoverability.

However, foregoing royalties in an attempt to gain traction with libraries misses a large portion of what the goal of librarians truly is.

Part of the job of librarians is to assess their specific patrons’ needs. What works at a large metro library, may not work at a smaller rural library. What’s popular and read often at a suburban public library will often be very different from that of a local community college or large university.

These individual needs are what drive librarians to speak of the need for multiple solutions.

But in all the time we’ve spent talking with librarians, not one has ever implied that libraries wish they could offer their patrons great content without having to pay for it; or that being able to do so would solve any of the acquisition problems they face. Every single librarian we’ve talked to about licensing, pricing, and discoverability has shared the same mindset: “Authors deserve fair pay for the work they’ve produced”. In our interactions, this sentiment appears universal.

Furthermore, the librarians we’ve worked with are not only HUGE fans of indie authors, but massive advocates for sustainable writing careers.

The long-term answer to the indie author’s discoverability problem is not FREE; not in the consumer marketplace2, and not in the library marketplace. If the ebook is produced professionally, has compelling cover art, is well edited, and patrons choose to read it, then the author deserves to be compensated. Librarians certainly agree with this.
Discoverability and royalties are not, and should not be, tied directly to each other.

There’s a lot more to read over on the EAF Blog. Click here to read more.

Q: What’s taking so long with EAF?

EAF: We’re still in a beta testing period, due almost entirely to the fact that an overwhelming majority of libraries in this country don’t have access to the infrastructure needed to host their own ebook collection.

Vendors have controlled this aspect of the digital library since ebooks started to become popular.

Because of this, if we want to give libraries the ability to host their own content and allow patrons to quickly and easily interact with the ebooks they purchase, then we have to invent the technology they need from the ground up. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

For eBooksAreForever to be judged as a success for both authors and libraries, we feel it’s important to not only deliver the necessary technology, but to create a community around that tech that benefits everyone involved. So we want to make sure that when we launch nationwide later this year, that authors and librarians will be blown away by the features, ease-of-use and simplicity of eBooksAreForever.com.

But that's only ⅔ of the whole equation. Many libraries don't have any existing infrastructure to offer ebooks to their patrons. So EAF is working to create one, and make this available to libraries and patrons for free.

Joe sez: Compare ebooks and libraries to other media markets. Let's equate writers with videogame developers. Creating the game isn't enough. There needs to be a way to get that game to consumers. There also needs to be a way for consumers to play the game.
In the retail market, you can reach consumers via Amazon, Google, etc. But in the library market, which is global but decentralized, every library and library system has a different way of acquiring and cataloging titles (and cataloging is a big one--a library can't offer any materials to patrons unless it has a method of sorting, shelving, and keeping track; with digital media this means integrating with a myriad of different cataloging and hosting software, and in some cases being the host.)

Then, once the library has a way to buy and lend ebooks, how are patrons supposed to read them? Amazon and other retailers have invented their own ereading devices for this purpose. While some libraries may have the funds to purchase and lend out dedicated devices, most don't. Which means EAF has to not only integrate with libraries, but with the devices that patrons already have, such as computers, tablets, and smart phones.

This isn't something that happens overnight.
Q: Who do you see as competition for EAF? What are they doing right or wrong?

EAF: The only real competition to EAF at this time is Overdrive via their connection with Smashwords. Although, comparing the sustainable indie platform we’re building to a vendor that serves big traditional publishers, and which was just purchased by Kobo’s parent company for half a billion dollars, doesn’t seem like an apples-to-apples comparison.

Overdrive/Smashwords is the only other avenue that indie authors and publishers can utilize to get their ebooks into libraries AND get paid for doing so. In that respect, they’re doing the right thing by paying indies royalties when libraries purchase their books.

However, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing this with librarians and, while a few admitted their response to indies eventually defaulted to “Add your books to Smashwords, and we can look for them through Overdrive”, in reality, the likelihood of that process ever playing out is very small.

You can read a more in-depth reason for why that is here (in the “Library Interest and Marketing” section), but it boils down to 2 main factors:

  1. Most of the popular indie content isn’t available via Smashwords
  2. It’s far too daunting of a process for them to take on the Overdrive/Smashwords process for each and every indie author who approaches them

More importantly, indie content just doesn’t seem important to Overdrive. And why should it when they have ebooks from the Big5 (as well as many other traditional publishers) priced at huge markups above the retail price.

We feel the goal for indies and libraries should be to build upon the already harmonious relationship that exists between the two groups. Finding ways to create a sustainable community is something that nobody else is even attempting right now.

Joe sez: The problem of discoverability for authors is much more difficult on a virtual library shelf than it is on Amazon. First, libraries must be aware of titles; they aren't going to buy something they don't know exists. Second, patrons need to be aware of titles; they aren't going to borrow something they can't find.

My biggest goal as a writer mirrors the goal of many of my peers; we all want to be read. Simply getting your ebook into a library is no guarantee anyone will read you, or even find you.

One of the ways we're working to make EAF valuable to libraries is to make it valuable to library patrons. That means a way for readers to find, read, and discuss titles.
Q: What are the greatest ebook challenges facing libraries?

EAF: Among the hurdles that libraries must overcome are:

  1. Shrinking budgets; They simply don’t have the budgets to purchase everything they would like to add.
  2. Licensing models that strain that budget; High prices for ebooks, combined with unfavorable licensing, create a very unfavorable environment for libraries. For example, a library must pay for extension of time-limited licenses of old ebooks AND purchases of licenses for new ones. All kinds of sustainability and predictability issues arise.
  3. Cost of technology, which again strains their budget; An overwhelming majority (I’d guess more than 97%) of libraries don’t have the ability to host digital content on their own. This limits what they can offer their patrons to those vendors who are providing third party services. Most of these vendors charge high platform setup fees.

There are plenty of other concerns regarding ebooks, such as patron confidentiality and security (like when Adobe was caught collecting data on library ebook users), censorship and filter requirements, and changing demographics, but the shrinking budget sticks out as a major problem because of how enormously expensive ebooks are from major publishers.

Joe sez: I'll add another hurdle: the time and money involved in curation. Which brings us to the next question.
Q: Is EAF ever going to invite all authors into its catalog? Why the exclusivity?

We’re working on ways to allow ALL authors access to eBooksAreForever and, with input from librarians, are considering different solutions for different challenges at various types of libraries.

In a perfect world, curation wouldn’t be necessary. In general, I’d say curation is completely unnecessary in the consumer space. Putting up walls (as many indies are familiar with) and falsifying “best-seller” lists to limit consumer access to certain titles is simply wrong.

But the important thing that we need to know to initially build and grow EAF is that the consumer marketplace and library marketplace are two different entities. There are many things that would be expected when it comes to Amazon/B&N/Kobo/Apple/etc that just don’t work the same way for libraries. Mostly, this is due to the fact that the consumer reader market is growing (depending upon who you ask of course), where as library budgets are shrinking – and they’re shrinking while ebook prices are continuing to climb for them. We’re dealing with far more limitations and completely different needs.

Additionally, librarians have asked for this curation, as it’s something that makes the acquisition process far easier for them. We want to deliver upon that request.

To finish all necessary testing before our official launch later this year, we need to control both quality and quantity of titles, as well as the number of titles per genre. We can’t go to launch with 80% of our titles being mystery titles, or romance titles; which may lead to someone who passes all of the internal criteria we’ve set being temporarily denied at this point.

Being denied access now doesn’t mean you’ll be denied in 2 weeks, or 2 months. Overall, there are various factors that go into the curation process, of which number of reviews, quality of reviews, number of titles, whether your books are in a series, estimated sales figures, cover art, book description, current genre saturation, library interest, and overall availability are just a few.

We’ve come across books that are obviously of high quality that have few sales, and fewer reviews. And we’ve accepted some of those titles. We won’t automatically turn authors away because of lack of reviews. Likewise, we also can’t automatically accept books based entirely on hitting certain thresholds.

Joe sez: In a nutshell, curation is necessary to make EAF's catalogue valuable to libraries.

With the sheer number of indie titles already available, and tens of thousands more released every year, only the largest library systems can afford to pay a fulltime employee to sort through them all.

The work-around is simple: EAF does the sorting for libraries. Our business plan focuses on making it simple for libraries to buy our entire catalog all at once, rather than parsing through each individual title.

This means the titles we offer have to be vetted. EAF's collection is only valuable if the titles in it have already proven popular with readers.

Think about an all-you-can-eat buffet. It costs $9.99, and has a hundred different foods to munch on. How long would that buffet stay in business if eighty out of a hundred foods weren't ever eaten? Or if a handful were really low quality?

Our launch model is focused on working with libraries to get them desired indie content without wasting their time or money. We're also working to incorporate both erotica and non-fiction in our launch.

For the future, we're developing different ideas to allow more writers to reach libraries, while also fairly compensating them, even if they haven't had big sales yet.

I didn't start this business because I wanted to get rich quick. I started it to help writers get their self-pubbed work into libraries. This means all writers. But that's going to take some time, and there will be some smaller steps EAF needs to take before that happens.


We appreciate your patience. It'll be worth the wait.

18 comments:

Iain Rob Wright said...

Great. I'm really glad to be a part of this. I hope for the best.

Mark Edward Hall said...

I'm also happy to be a part of this. Thanks for doing so much for so many.

gniz said...

If this works, Joe is going to be riiiiiiiiiiiiiiich!

I know that's not the entire reason for him doing it--I think he's doing it for some wonderful reasons. But if its successful I wouldn't be surprised at a nice buyout occurring and Joe sitting very pretty afterward.

Lot has to go right between now and then...

Joe Konrath said...

Ebooks for libraries is a fractal problem. From a distance, it appears simple; just have a way for libraries and authors to connect. But when you look closer, it gets more complicated and problems arise.

So you look closer at those problems, and it gets more complicated and more problems arise.

So you look closer at those problems, and it gets more complicated and more problems arise.

So you look closer at those problems, and it gets more complicated and more problems arise.

And so on.

One of the reasons we're confident going forward is none of the current players have a clue about how to nationalize an ebook lending system that can integrate with every library. It is sort of like being a shoe company, for every lifeform on earth. Not only does one size not fit all, but one style doesn't fit all.

The upside to that is we've already figured out a lot. This industry would be daunting for a start-up, even one with deep pockets--to enter. It's like mining for gold dust. The dust is there, but the work and money it takes to extract it is excessive.

But when we do pull this off, we'll be worth more than our API and some patents. We'll have created a sales channel that previously never existed.

Once we do that, we're going to start doing some revolutionary stuff. I'm not concerned about ebook subscription services, because I have an idea that can compete. Two ideas, actually.

But first, baby steps and beta testing and listening to what libraries need, and solving those new problems that arise after we conquer the previous ones.

BRYAN HIGBY said...

This is a great update on Ebooksareforever. I'm hoping to be included in the Horror/Fantasy/Thriller genres with my OzValt Grant and DenMark Chronicles books. Good luck Joe and August. You guys are great!

Sabrina Chase said...

You might also be able to leverage existing library back-end software. Many libraries and consortia use ProQuest to manage and purchase books for their collections (especially ebooks). If you want I can email more details (used to work for them).

August Wainwright said...

@ Sabrina Chase We absolutely intend to integrate our APIs with existing software solutions. Our focus so far has been with the ILS providers, but discovery services could happen simultaneously. I know there are some more "open" discovery initiatives that are ongoing, which may eventually make wider integrations across multiple platforms a bit easier.

Would love to hear your thoughts though. I'm at august@ebooksareforever.com. Thanks.

Sean McCartney said...

I sent my ebook information in and am looking forward to working within this project. (Hopefully) :) This is just the beginning and is a great idea.

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on adding comics in the future?

Nat Russo said...

But when you look closer, it gets more complicated and problems arise.

So you look closer at those problems, and it gets more complicated and more problems arise.

So you look closer at those problems, and it gets more complicated and more problems arise.

So you look closer at those problems, and it gets more complicated and more problems arise.

And so on.


Welcome to my world, Joe! I'm a professional software engineer.

Joe Flynn said...

This is a terrific idea. I've loved libraries since I first learned to read. I've kept my library cards from every place I've lived, from Chicago to Hawaii and Beverly Hills in between (BH lets L.A. residents get cards or used to do so). As a curation checkpoint, you might ask whether an author has had previous print books that have been bought by libraries.

M. Peter Ross said...

Glad to see your working on this issue, Joe. As a library director who is also an avid reader of indies, I know there is some great work my patrons are missing out on under the ecosystem.

I can also tell you that as a librarian, I appreciate a bit of exclusivity, provided the sole criterion driving that is exclusivity is quality products. As someone buying books on the public dime, I feel a great obligation to ensure I'm not putting junk in the way of patrons looking for good books. I don't mean that in a snooty way (I.e., "We only serve up the finest literary fiction here.") but we've all seen poorly executed indie work that's been rushed to market. Drives me nuts, and I don't want to answer for buying those titles.

I would also encourage indies to charge what they're worth. In library land, free is viewed with great suspicion. Print books that arrive at my desk tare not likely to make it to the shelves, and I doubt any librarian is going to view free ebooks any differently.

M. Peter Ross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M. Peter Ross said...

Um, meant to say that free print books that make it to my desk aren't likely to hit the shelves. Apparently I'm guilty of a poorly executed blog comment that was rushed to market.

Walter Knight said...

The easiest solution for libraries to access E-books is for libraries to buy Kindles and KU membership. Patrons can use the Kindles at the Library. Libraries currently let patrons use their PC's for internet access. It's the same thing. That way patrons can access any book they want. I'm surprised Amazon doesn't give away Kindles to libraries to sell KU membership.

Of course this simple solution would make any other effort obsolete.

Gibson said...

Hi Joe,

I was wondering how the EAF program compares to the Self-E Library Journal?

Would you say these offer a similar service or are they different tools?

August Wainwright said...

@Walter Knight - Although Kindles + KU memberships may seem like the easiest solution on the surface, I have to disagree once you dig a little deeper.

To start, this would only allow patrons to read on the devices physically located at the library. In a metro area where the library could have over 100,000 registered users, it's not really a solution at all. Most library patrons have personal device preferences that they hold very dear, and although most of those preferences probably skew Kindle, my guess would be that a vast majority would much rather read on their own device. Likewise, most would prefer to read on their own time and not have to do so sitting at the local library. The library could potentially lend the actual reader out - which is common now - but if you did a 2-week loan period, then each device would be loaned 26 times throughout the year. You'd have to purchase thousands of Kindle devices to make this work at scale.

Additionally, if a library went Kindle + KU exclusively - which they'd never do - they'd be alienating a huge portion of the market. The reality is, for now, big name authors represented by the major publishers are not a part of KU. Maybe that changes down the road, but I'd bet it takes a long while.

There really isn't an "easy solution" to ebooks in libraries because each library has a different set of needs. Unlike the consumer marketplace, where selling a $5.99 ebook to one person is exactly the same as selling it to someone else, the library marketplace consists of everything from large metro and small rural public libraries, to large academic institutions and universities, community colleges, and grade schools, each of which may have vastly different setups and budgetary demands. As things mature a bit, the most likely total solution will be a mixture of multiple paths that give libraries the ability to access different purchasing models based upon different content.

Athena Grayson said...

I'm only beginning to research this. I distribute to OverDrive and B&T/Axis360 through Smashwords, and one thing they offer me is the option to reduce or eliminate the cost of my ebooks to libraries. I always thought this was a smart thing to do, because I know libraries are working with limited budgets, and I also know that given the choice between spending a few bucks on my series versus another copy of '50 Shades,' the Library's going to go with the Gray. Up to now, I figured the "free" might look attractive to a Librarian, thus allowing them to get that extra copy of 50 Shades and toss my series in the basket as well. Am I right in hearing that's not the case?