Libraries And E-Lending: The 'Wild West' Of Digital Licensing?

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Have you ever borrowed an e-book from a library? If the answer is no, you're a member of a large majority. A survey out Thursday from the Pew Internet Project finds that only 5 percent of "recent library users" have tried to borrow an e-book this year.

About three-quarters of public libraries offer e-books, according to the American Library Association, but finding the book you want to read can be a challenge — when it's available at all.

Brian Kenney is the director of the White Plains Public Library in New York. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish about a library patron who wanted to check out a digital copy of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.

"It was a middle-aged guy, you know, had a high techno-comfort zone, he was carrying his iPad, and he approached the desk carrying the Isaacson bio and said, 'How do I download this,' " Kenney recalls. "And it was the classic case where I had to explain to them, 'Well, sir, actually, you can't download that from here.' And then ensues the discussion why, as though somehow or other the library was stupid or failing in its job."

In fact, Kenney says, it's not a failure on the part of the library — Simon and Schuster, which published the book, would not license it to the library for download.

You might think about all this as the Wild West of digital licensing — a frontier environment where every publisher has its own set of rules. Among the six biggest companies, Simon and Schuster currently licenses none of its e-books to libraries. The company says it simply hasn't found a model that works.

Only two publishing houses, HarperCollins and Random House, sell their most popular books to libraries in digital form, and as Kenney explains, those companies' models have their own quirks.

"HarperCollins uses a model where we can license a book, and we have 26 circulations for that one book," he says. "It is the same model that we have in print: one book, one user at a time." But after 26 people have read that book, the library must pay a fee — usually $25 to $35 — to renew the license. Kenney says libraries initially found the idea off-putting, but "now it's a model I work with. It makes a degree of sense."

But the Random House model is quite different, Kenney says, with new titles costing up to $100 to license. "It might make some sense with a huge best-seller, but libraries buy broadly — we buy first authors, we buy lesser-known memoirs, we want readers to come in and encounter authors and voices for the first time," Kenney says. And splashing out $100 on a book that may not get checked out very often just isn't an effective use of the library's money. "So it puts us in a funny place, that model."

Will loosening up e-lending rules ultimately hurt book sales? Kenney says that's not necessarily the case. "Because they're licensed, I would argue publishers have an opportunity here to be creative," he says. "The HarperCollins model is one interesting model; I would certainly entertain a variety of other models from publishers. ... This is a very different world that we're in, and I think that it's an opportunity for publishers and librarians to sort of work together to figure out, how can we sustain readers? How can publishers thrive? How can libraries also thrive?"

In a world where many people are using their tablet computers to catch up on Game of Thrones or the latest Kardashian antics, Kenney argues, "public libraries, I mean, we're out there really pushing the product of these publishers, and I can't imagine another industry in this country that has that type of a relationship."

But libraries also need to be open to experimentation, he adds. "They need to hear different solutions coming in the marketplace from publishers and just say, 'OK, we're gonna give that a shot ... things are changing, and the publishers need to experiment. We might not think that what they're doing might even be working, but we need to give it a fair shot.' "

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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