Dear Macmillan and Harper Collins: Libraries are your Friends

Macmillan's president was recently quoted as saying "“The fear is I get one library card and never have to buy a book again.” Random House has announced they will be limiting library loans of their ebooks to 26 loans, after which libraries will have to pay to license the books again.

Boys, you're just not seeing the trees for the forest here.

OK, they've got a legitimate fear. Libraries around the country are at risk of closing. Most of them charge "out of the area" people for a library card. It's not beyond the realm of reason that some enterprising librarian might convince town officials to buy a bunch of ebooks, then advertise heavily to get readers from all over the world buying library cards. Then channel those funds into still more ebooks, etc. A library that did this very well could end up with tens of millions of "card holders" from all over, each able to download books. Now, libraries are limited already: if a library loans a book, it's unavailable until returned or until the loan period runs out. But even so, the idea of a central clearing house where readers can pay an annual or monthly fee to borrow books at will is a powerful one.

Think Netflixs, for books.

So Harper-Collins is limiting downloads. Macmillan seems to be all sorts of worried. It would not surprise me if more big publishers try to follow suit. It's a knee-jerk reaction to fear: circle the wagons!


The Thing Is, They're Wrong.

Libraries are a net gain for publishers. They always have been, and probably always will be. No, publishers don't get paid for every loan of a book (in the USA, at least - in some countries, libraries pay small fees for each loan). But that doesn't mean those books equate to lost revenue. Quite the opposite.

As this blogger points out, she estimates she reads about $1200 a year in books at her local library. She buys about $320-600 in books per year, as well. But those $1200 are not lost sales for publishers. Magically making the library go away would not give her an extra $1200 a year in disposable income. What it would do is remove $1200 a year in books from her hobby, changing the hobby from something she does all the time, every day, to something she does much less frequently. And we're much more willing to spend hundreds of dollars per year on hobbies which we do regularly.

Libraries encourage people to buy more books, because they make books available as a day to day hobby for folks who otherwise would not be able to read regularly. Because libraries serve this crucial role in building the importance of reading to people all over the country, they have an extremely positive impact on book sales, and therefore on publishers' bottom lines.


And Libraries Will Buy eBooks Anyway

Yes, Harper-Collins. Libraries will buy ebooks anyway. They just aren't going to buy yours. They're going to buy the books by some other publisher. We have about 1200 publishers in the USA right now. Be a darn shame if Harper-Collins books were simply not carried in any ebook library in the country. A shame for them, and especially for the writers they publish. Libraries help spread the word about books, help encourage new readers, help build readerships. For a lot of people, if a book is not in the local library, it might as well not exist. In our increasingly ebook dominated world, the same thing will be true - for ebooks.

And if you're limiting loans to 26 times, and your competitors are not, guess whose books libraries are going to buy? And on whose they are going to say "pass"?

Short term thinking at its finest. My advice? Work with libraries to develop good, reliable, fair methods of ebook loan distribution that will maximize readers. More readers is a good thing. People who learn to love books at libraries buy books from bookstores. The digital distribution of books has the potential to catapult reading from a second-string hobby into one done by nearly everyone. It's a wonderful future, and it's going to happen with, or without Macmillan and Harper Collins. Whether they are involved, or get left behind, will be up to them.