With an announcement today, Simon & Schuster became the last remaining major publisher to allow for library eBook lending. S&S has started a pilot program with the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library. There isn’t much that hasn’t been done before as far as the terms go: one copy, one person; titles have to be repurchased after a year; the full catalog is available including new titles which are available for purchase at the time of publication. Although, there is actually one very different detail:
As part of this pilot, The New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Library are offering patrons the option to purchase a copy of Simon & Schuster eBooks from within the libraries’ online portals. Since the libraries will receive a share of the proceeds from each sale, this new service offers patrons the opportunity to support their local library, particularly for popular new titles with long waiting lists.
While I’m curious to see how this little twist plays out, I’m still have a mixed reaction to this whole deal. First, it’s an interesting swipe at Amazon in denying them a sale, but it also takes a swing at Barnes & Noble. It may be a well calculated gamble as libraries do not need to make the sale to survive or deal with razor thin margins. Barnes & Noble could belly up in the near future and the placement of books in a library portal gives some maneuvering room for getting books to market. I’d be curious to see how the public prices are set as well as how competitive they would be in the eBook market.
Second, perpetual stewardship of eBook titles is still a long ways off. In bringing the last library eBook lending holdouts to the table, one or two years have been the negotiated terms for service. There doesn’t seem to be any movement towards any deal that includes longer or perpetual terms. (Nevermind anything that resembles the term “ownership”.) This shifts literature archiving or preservation away from libraries and back to the publishing groups. As these titles only require server space, they can be kept as a backlist indefinitely. (Or, as I figure, as indefinitely as someone as a publishing executive allows it.) Not exactly a comforting thought, but neither is it upsetting. The books that stand the test of time will be saved for their profit while others will just fade away like wiped hard drives. Those decisions will be made in the years to come.
Third, I’m always leery about the concept of a public library acting as a retailer. While I think it would be a wonderful boon to offer our library members the ability to purchase material, I have concerns that fall into two groups. The first is the public library as a government entity acting in the retail market as a competitor. I feel that it’s an unfair advantage on private business since we are funded by tax money, not investors or profits. To me it feels like as an intrusion on a market that is better handled by the private sector. The second is that use of tax money to seed the purchase of eBooks that could be sold. My concern is that this sale benefit becoming an undue influence on the purchase of eBooks that can turn a sale versus offering a wide variety of material. Granted, the percentage of the sale that the library gets remains to be seen, but it’s still money that we didn’t have a moment ago. Also, how would this change expectations about the library and the materials that we offer?
Even with these reservations, I still want to see the pilot go forward. I want to follow how this experiment turns out as well as the options and lessons that come out of it. There is still much unsettled, so much to see, and who knows what the technology or market will take us in the next year. It’s hard to wait and see, but there are no better options right now.