The way people read is changing.
After centuries of relying on books, readers are increasingly turning to computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices to view the printed word. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, more than one in five people 16 years or older have read at least one e-book in the last year.
There’s every reason to believe the number of e-book readers will increase: a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that e-books will make up half of the United States trade book market by 2016. That’s an astonishing statistic, but it’s also a reflection of the world in which we live.
Our country’s libraries are preparing for the rise of e-books. About 76% of the public libraries across the country—including all of those in my home state of Tennessee, I’m proud to say—are already offering e-books, and about 39% of all libraries nationwide offer e-readers. However, many people aren’t yet aware of the availability of e-books in libraries. The Pew Research Center estimates that 62% of readers, including many regular library users, don’t realize e-books can be checked out just as printed books can. As people learn e-books are available and become more comfortable using them, demand will increase. This expected increase in demand presents a problem for libraries nationwide.
Some of the country’s largest publishing houses are charging libraries exorbitant prices for e-books, and others that are still testing pilot programs refuse to sell to library consortiums, such as the Tennessee Regional E-book and Audiobook Download System (READS), which provides materials to library users in rural counties. Due to these restrictions, many of the titles on the New York Times Bestseller List are unavailable through the Tennessee READS program. If the same were true of the printed versions of those books, there would be an uproar from library patrons. And that uproar is likely to occur at some point in the not-too-distant future, as e-books increase in popularity. That is, unless publishers and libraries can work together to make e-books more widely available. There are ample incentives on both sides for closer collaboration.
Libraries are places that cultivate a love of reading. People who borrow books from libraries are more likely to later buy books on their own. The same principle applies to e-books—particularly if library patrons borrow e-books to become more comfortable with the new format before making purchasing decisions. Of course, the success of each library depends upon the quality of its inventory, in print and now virtually. If libraries can’t provide the types of books people want and need in the formats they prefer, that doesn’t bode well at all.
It’s also important to remember that libraries have a mission to provide information to people regardless of their economic backgrounds. In order for libraries to fulfill this mission, they must be able to loan e-books to those who can’t afford them. The key is making e-books available to libraries at, or very near, the same prices that individuals pay to purchase them.
It’s understandable that publishers want to find an economic model for library sales that works for them in this digital age. Publishers have experimented with the concept of renting e-books to libraries, rather than selling them outright. In this scenario, a library would pay to obtain an e-book for a set period of time (perhaps a couple of years) or for a finite number of loans to patrons. Publishers are also looking at ways to easily sell e-books to library patrons if a particular title isn’t available at a library or if there is a wait to check it out. There may be other options to accommodate the needs of both publishers and libraries. The two sides should work together to find creative solutions. The stakes couldn’t be higher for everyone involved. There are some who believe that new books will eventually be published in digital formats exclusively. Even if print doesn’t disappear completely, the growth of digital will require huge adjustments for the book industry.
I am optimistic that publishers and libraries will be able to make the necessary adjustments, just as they have in response to other challenges they’ve faced together through the years. However, to make the transition as smooth as possible, the two sides must start planning for those adjustments now.