In a surprise announcement on February 9th, Penguin Group, one of the world’s largest publishers, terminated its partnership with OverDrive, the primary supplier of ebooks to public libraries. While Penguin promises that ebooks currently licensed by libraries will remain available, forthcoming titles will not (Penguin print books will still be available to libraries and, of course, Penguin ebooks will continue to be sold to consumers via online retailers). Penguin now joins Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan among the “Big Six” American publishers whose new ebook titles are not available to public libraries. Of the remaining two major publishers, only Random House allows unrestricted access to its digital books, although they have just announced a price increase to libraries. HarperCollins, for its part, allows libraries to purchase their ebooks but introduced a controversial sales model of 26 uses per copy in 2011 (for more on the HarperCollins sales model, see our previous post).
What does all this mean for readers and libraries? Essentially, it means that the number of best-selling, in-demand ebooks available to libraries continues to shrink, while the demand for these titles continues to grow. Between 2010 and 2011, ebook circulation at the Free Library of Philadelphia via OverDrive increased over 300%. In addition, according to a recent PEW Internet study, 29% of American adults now own either an e-reader or a tablet while 35% of adults now own a smartphone, which can also be used for reading ebooks. However, Pew also reports that rates of smartphone, e-reader, and tablet ownership drop off among people with a household income of $30K or less. This is particularly important to us in Philadelphia where the median household income is just $36,251 and 25% of the population lives below the poverty level.
We believe that Penguin's position, as well as that of Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan, has repercussions that go beyond giving people "free” access to the latest James Patterson or Stephen King ebook. The business models that libraries, publishers, and vendors like OverDrive and Amazon, put in place now will set a precedent for how digital content is treated in the future. While I am not of the opinion that print books are going to disappear any time soon, I do think that publishers and readers will continue to embrace digital books. We will also likely begin to see more titles published exclusively in a digital format.
Libraries pay fair prices for content so we can share it with our readers. That means all of our readers: those who see libraries as a simple convenience, those who recognize them as a right and an essential democratic institution, as well as those for whom the public library is an invaluable lifeline.
Several publishers have criticized various aspects of the current ebook model for libraries, but few have put forward alternatives. To be fair, the ebook market is new to all of us and some growing pains are to be expected. That’s why the American Library Association as well as several independent libraries and nonprofit organizations are working directly with publishers to find a solution that will work for everyone. Public libraries respect the need for publishers to make a profit, but we also expect publishers to respect our right to deliver content, new titles as well as old, in the formats that readers need now. Every major publisher has publicly declared their support of libraries, and libraries, through our handling of last summer's developments with HarperCollins, have demonstrated that we are open to alternative models. Yet we remain at an impasse - and now another publisher has pulled its content from our digital shelves.
Perhaps the time has come for readers and authors to demand more from publishers? Please support your public library however you can and consider contacting your favorite publishers to request that they renew and act upon their commitment to making all of their books available to libraries in every format.
Contact Penguin (publishers of The Help by Kathryn Stockett , Against All Enemies by Tom Clancy, and more)
Contact Simon & Schuster (publishers of 11/23/63: A Novel by Stephen King, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and more)
Contact Hachette (publishers of Bossy Pants by Tina Fey, Guilty Wives by James Paterson, and more)
Contact Macmillan (publishers of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, Think Twice by Lisa Scottoline, and more)