Did you know you can borrow eBooks from your local library? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. Forbes reported in June that 58 percent of library patrons don’t know they can borrow eBooks, and only two percent have ever done it.
That’s not surprising, considering that traditional publishing houses have kept as tight a rein on their eBook sales to libraries as they have on eBook sales in general. Some of the Big Six reportedly don’t sell eBooks to libraries at all. The publishers that allow such sales insist that libraries purchase only DRM-locked books, and they limit the number of borrows for a single eBook copy. Why all the hoops? The big publishers are afraid that if library patrons find out they can borrow eBooks, it will eat into their sales – and, hence, their profits. That’s despite the fact that a large percentage of eBook borrowers are also eBook buyers.
Which makes sense, if you’ve ever tried to check out an eBook. When I borrowed a digital version of a book I needed for research for my series, I had to navigate away from my home library’s site, sign in a second time with my library card number, click through several screens to locate the book, and then hunt around the site some more to figure out how to download the book to my device. Once I had it, I couldn’t do anything with it but read it; I could have taken a regular book to the library’s copier to reproduce the diagrams, but with my borrowed eBook I had to haul out paper and pencil. In addition, the file was only available for a couple of weeks, and then it locked itself. It was still on my device; I just couldn’t open it any more. I ended up ordering a dead-tree copy of the book from Amazon.
Despite their tight acquisitions budgets, libraries promise to be a lucrative market for indies, and we’re starting to see progress. In August, Smashwords announced a program called Library Direct that acts as a distributor of its top 10,000 titles to participating library systems; three systems (including the Internet Archive and library systems in California and Colorado) have signed up for starters.
One blogger is complaining about the Smashwords deal, saying participating authors’ profit will be limited to 45 percent of the purchase price of any eBook sold through Library Direct. She notes that’s a far cry from the 85 percent Smashwords authors normally get. I would hasten to add, however, that 45 percent still beats the profit you would make from a sale under a traditional publishing contract. And keep in mind that a hefty chunk of eBook borrowers are also eBook buyers, and that if a reader likes one of your books, they’re likely to look for, and pay for, others. If you think of sales to libraries as an advertising tool, the cut in profits might not seem any different than enrolling your book in KDP Select.
Now if we can just streamline the eBook checkout process. But I suspect that’s out of our hands.