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Friday, January 22, 2016

Libraires and Self Published Authors: Part 3-- The Ebook Problem

As I proclaimed in my 2016 Reading Resolutions, this year I am going to make an effort to be more informed about self published authors. From that post:
Not only will I make sure I read a few self published titles in a variety of genres, but I will also be blogging about self published books and specifically how we can and should handle them in libraries.
You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Today I am back with self published author/librarian Sydney Bristow who I asked to also tackle the topic of ebooks in libraries.  Since self published works are very popular in ebook form, I knew Sydney would have a unique take on this issue.

I have talked to a few other librarians to help me in my quest to be more informed about self published authors, so look for more posts on this topic in the coming months. If you have ideas about self published authors and libraries, contact me.

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My name is Sydney Bristow, Chicagoland librarian and indie author, and this is the companion post that Becky asked me to provide: where I think ebooks are headed in the public library world as well as upcoming options that self-published authors have to place their works into public library collections. I’m not amazingly up-to-date on subscription models when it comes to ebooks within public libraries, but I hope to provide a decent introductory to the subject.

As I stated in my last post, publishers are concerned with their profit margins. In the book world, they have a stronghold on print books, because some small publishers (and especially indie authors) cannot compete with their reach when it comes to mass producing print books. 

For this reason, publishers are able to print mass quantities of print books at low prices. But with the popularity of ebooks, they are compelled to keep their prices high when it comes to public libraries for a few reasons:
  1. If you can charge a lot for something, and you know that customers will pay that price, why would you lower the price? This was most apparent during the height of popularity for E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy. Our library paid $75 per copy. I think we ordered 12 copies for a total of $900. (We had more than 60 people on reserve for it, and our collection development policy stated that we would permit no more than 5 cardholder requests for any given item.)
  2. Publishers want to maintain their domination of the print market. By charging high prices for ebooks, they can certainly profit from those sales, but it also discourages libraries from purchasing multiple copies. As backwards as it seems, publishers prefer not to make the majority of their profits from ebooks: if customers (libraries and individuals) pay for those items at low price points, what stops any given author under contract with a publisher from self-publishing and perhaps receiving a greater percentage of the profits? (Please see my previous post for more on this subject.) This way, with fewer sales of ebooks, publishers can continue serving their authors by selling both print and electronic units.
  3. Ebooks do not get damaged. Therefore, libraries do not need to replace old or worn copies. While publishers maintain that they enjoy doing business with libraries, it does seem to be a love/hate relationship. They appreciate that library employees recommend titles and authors to their patrons, who then might go on to purchase those items. But every print copy they sell to any given library might be read numerous times. Of course, publishers would prefer that customers pay for each book they read.
Lately, some of the Big 5 publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Random House) have made changes to their ebook policies when it comes to libraries. Some lease books, others sell them outright, some charge high prices, others charge fair prices. You can find out more from this article in Library Journal: Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries.

Plenty of ink has been written in trade journals about decreasing sales of ebooks, and I like how LJ remains bias-free: they mention that these statistics are skewed. (For more information about this and probably more data than you can ever ask for about ebook sales, please visit this article from Author Earnings, a non-profit group that analyzes ebook sales data.) 

The bottom line is that public libraries don’t have the best bargaining chip when it comes to getting a wide berth of ebooks available for their patrons. Other than the Big 5 publishers, there are hundreds of smaller publishers that produce great books each year. And while Overdrive and 3M collect some of the best books available on the market in a bundle that many public libraries take part in, they cannot possibly have every book that patrons want to read.

Other vendors may provide for different licensing models, but public libraries would prefer to deal with very few vendors. It’s not the same as databases, where depending on any given library’s budget, they might subscribe to either few or many. Each database product specializes in a specific category, whereas when it comes to ebooks, we’re just talking about…more ebooks! 
Some models provide for consortiums to buy into a plan. Others like Douglas County Public Library have decided upon a different strategy

Regarding indie books, Library Journal, along with BiblioBoard, has started the Self-E program, where indie authors can gain discoverability through public libraries by submitting their work for inclusion in a program that libraries will eventually be able to subscribe to. Another program that plans to offer self-published titles to libraries is Ebooks are Forever. One large difference between both programs is that Ebooks are Forever compensates authors for inclusion in their product, whereas Self-E does not. At this point, both still seem to be in the beta stage, so they are not yet open for libraries to begin subscribing to their services.

One of the main drawbacks of being an indie writer is discoverability. There are at least 1.5 million indie writers working to get the same traction: visibility from readers. It is difficult to get readers to know you exist…but not impossible. It just takes patience and dedication. 

Some indie writers may want to include their works into the Self-E program to get that exposure from public library patrons in hopes that those same patrons might go on to purchase their ebooks or print books. But while many indie writers are willing to offer their novels for free for a limited time, fewer writers are now willing to do so permanently. After all, writers would like to be reimbursed for the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours they spent on any given piece of work.

I feel that Ebooks are Forever offers a better platform for indie authors when it comes to trying to get their work into libraries. While both this program and Self-E ensure that any given piece of work is up to current industry standards (properly edited, enticing book cover, entertaining plot, etc.), Ebooks are Forever gives authors a chance to offer their work at low prices to public libraries. And public library material selectors have a long history of fighting to ensure that authors get compensated for their work. (After all, if writers don’t get paid, why should they write? And if they don’t write, libraries don’t have material for their patrons to check out.)

Therefore, while public libraries have options when it comes to including ebooks into their collections, the price, offerings, and stipulations vary, depending on the model and the vendor. If there were only a handful (or even a dozen) publishers in the U.S., public libraries might have a better opportunity to acquire larger ebook collections. But with so many individual publishers, each with their own notions of how they offer should ebooks to institutions, public libraries cannot provide the same number of ebooks they offer to their patronage…in comparison to their print counterparts.
And the results from a recent Publishers Weekly article revealed that there wasn’t a great desire from patrons to check out ebooks from their public libraries. Of course, results will vary based on the location and size of any given public library’s budget. But when a library cannot get access to the number of copies they’d prefer to purchase (whether due to cost or availability), patrons will look elsewhere: either for the print version or purchase an ebook.

In today’s environment, we have become somewhat impatient when it comes to consuming information. We want it now. If we want news, we can find it online. If we want entertainment, we can watch a movie instantly through Netflix or borrow a book from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. Of course, public libraries have been offering some of these services such as offering databases, and allowing for streaming videos and downloading music, but we still want our patrons to visit us. However, as service models begin to change, so does human activity. 

After all, how often do you visit a teller inside a bank? How often do you rush into McDonald’s to get a meal? We don’t send letters through the USPS anymore, we send that info through Facebook or just text a friend. For this reason, I believe public libraries will always be a place where people congregate and socialize to learn, be entertained, and to grow as individuals.

For those reasons, I predict that publishers will begin lowering their ebook prices as the next few years tick by. I’m not saying they’ll be close to the price they offer to individual readers, but the price points will be lower than we currently pay. Why? Because publishers spend very little to produce ebooks, and they can do quite well financially by selling them to public libraries. 

Sure, some readers may decide not to place a request for an ebook at their public library and instead purchase the ebook. But at the same time, publishers won’t want to completely alienate public libraries because like small independent bookstores, readers visit these places and ask for readers advisory assistance from staff…if they don’t already do that with friends on Goodreads or through recommendations on Amazon. Publishers will want to hang onto that big profit margin, even if it means the size of their profit margins begin to dwindle as the years pass. 

So that wraps up this installment about the current (and future) state of ebooks in public libraries. I hope some of it was enlightening. If it didn’t, I’m sure you’ll know where to go to find more information about ebooks in public libraries. After all, I hear librarians are good at that sort of thing!

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