Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Digital books and librarians – pushback on licensing and costs

A survey of public libraries in New Zealand has found most have embraced digital book options but some pushback is apparent.
The survey was carried out by Business Media Services Ltd on behalf of its imprint BMS Books Ltd.  As a boutique publisher specialising in regional authors with challenging themes, we set out wanting to know more about the role of digital books in libraries.  Having called and talked to 62 librarians over a couple of weeks, we found some interesting aspects emerged during our discussions.
We had three main questions: One, had the libraries moved into digital books (never assume)?  What formats did you use?  How were eBooks priced?  A number of discussion points sometimes flowed out of straightforward questions.
Some of the librarians have been heavily involved in the introduction of digital books at a national and regional level.  Others were managing the process on a face-to-face and day-to-day level with the public.  Only one of the libraries did not have digital book services, but this was due to damage sustained by a natural event.  It is fair to say digital books are a minimal component of books in smaller libraries, however.
Librarians said books supplies are drawn mainly from the largely Wellington-based EPIC consortium, the Japanese-owned OverDrive and Auckland-based Australasian distributor Wheelers’ ePlatform.  Other sources include All Books NZ Ltd in Christchurch and other distributors, such as the James Bennett of Australia and Axis 360 Degrees.
Each of the suppliers has its adherents, who may not necessarily be “locked-in” by contractual arrangements but are heavily influenced in their book selection choices by distributor options.
Although the librarians in our survey described the suppliers in positive terms, a number raised concerns about access, selection and relevance.  Sometimes it was just a question of numbers, as one librarian said how they had 15,000 books on offer and only 250 digital books.

Pricing seems to be a problem.  As anybody who has bought a Kindle book will tell you, the price is usually much less than for a hard copy book (unless it is a best-seller).  However, we received a number of complaints that pricing for digital books from suppliers was “variable” – one librarian noted that there seemed to be “no rhyme or reason” for pricing.  Another noted that prices had risen recently, so that they were now as expensive, if not more expensive.

The introduction of a system of licensing access to digital material – books and audio – is troubling some librarians.  In theory, licensing should help libraries move into the world of streaming services and pay-as-you-read.  Licence periods vary depending on the distributor, as do prices.  However, we found librarians concerned about the continuing expense involved with limited licensing periods based on the number of times a book is read.  This can turn into an expensive exercise when the most popular books are involved, leading to a comment that librarians would prefer to buy the books than licence them.

Who decides?
Decision-making is an area of concern among librarians in regard to both digital and hard copy books.  Librarians love books and they love talking to people about books, that much became clear as we talked to them about for this survey.
The choice of which books will be put on your local library’s bookshelves will now, in many cases, be made at a distribution hub.  This means that librarians are unable to select books that they may think will appeal to their audience.  The selection is made based on what the contracted distributor believes are the most popular books.
“I am losing touch with new titles, because decisions are made elsewhere,” said one librarian.
An experienced librarian also noted: “Digital books are too expensive and have lots of limitations.  Publishers have to remember that research has shown that libraries are like shop fronts for their books.”
We are grateful for the librarians who took the time to talk to us and provide valuable feedback.

For more information, contact
Michael Smith
Publisher and Director
Business Media Services Ltd
BMS Books Ltd
07-349 4107
027-209 6861

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