Librarians have become an important constituency at Book Expo America, showing up in increasing numbers year after year to hear publishers pitch their latest offerings. This year, however, BEA won't just be about the books librarians will buy, but how they will buy them, and, in the case of e-books, if they can buy them at all.

That's because, librarians say, as Kindles, Nooks, iPads and other devices surge in popularity, the demand for e-books in libraries is surging as well. But with one vendor dominating public library e-book lending, and with some major publishers still resistant to selling e-books to libraries at all, meeting the demand for e-books is a challenging proposition.

Conversation Starter

"It's amazing," says Diane Eidelman, administrator for member services at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, a consortium of over 50 libraries on New York's Long Island. "We just can't keep up with the e-book demand. We'll purchase an enormous amount of content, and within 24 hours it's all checked out."

Indeed, the numbers tell the story. In the past 18 months, the Suffolk consortium's e-book expenditures have tripled. In the first few months of 2011 alone, Eidelman says, the library system has increased its e-book budget by 66%. And still, patrons can't get e-books fast enough. Earlier this month, the e-book version of James Patterson's 2010 thriller, Don't Blink, had a staggering 108 holds, she says, even though the library tries to purchase enough copies so there are no more than two reserves at a time. "We'll probably have to buy more copies," she notes. "We believe that's good customer service. But it is incredibly expensive. E-book purchases really are almost patron-driven at this point, and every few months we put more money into e-books."

"Buying copies," isn't exactly accurate, of course. What Eidelman means is that the libraries will license more access to Patterson's e-book from its e-book vendor, Overdrive. That digital access is designed to mimic a library copy—there is a price paid per copy, and the e-book is loaned on a one reader per copy basis with a two-week limit before the e-book is automatically "returned" to the library's digital shelves. But the library has no real ownership of the e-books it buys. It can't transfer ownership of the books to another library, for example—so no interlibrary loan—and the book is subject to restrictions set by the publisher, such as no copying or printing pages.

Bill Rodgers, library resources division manager at Minnesota's Hennepin County Library System, also offers some eye-opening statistics. Without even a year's worth of data, Hennepin has already increased its e-book budget 10-fold, to $350,000 from its initial $35,000 commitment. In the summer of 2010, downloads numbered around 1,500 monthly, Rodgers told PW. By December, downloads increased to over 7,000. By March 2011, e-book checkouts numbered 17,480.

The sharp rise in library e-book demand is also reflected in vendor Overdrive's nationwide statistics. In 2010, Overdrive, the leading vendor powering popular e-book library lending, reported a 200% increase in library e-book checkouts over 2009, and not even halfway through 2011, total e-book checkouts are already nearing 2010's annual total.

"This has been the tipping point year for our customers," Rodgers tells PW. "As the library customer is the focus of our decision making, we know that we will be committing more funds to meet the need for e-books. And we see some great opportunities for libraries and publishers to partner in the e-book world."

Conversation Stoppers

The question, however, is whether publishers see opportunity as well. So far, some do not. Of the major publishers, both Macmillan and Simon & Schuster refuse to offer trade e-books to libraries.

"We have not yet found a business model that makes us happy," S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy explains in a recent Publishing Point interview. Macmillan CEO John Sargent, in another Publishing Point interview, suggests that free digital copies that can be delivered conveniently right to one's device was at issue. "It's like Netflix, but you don't pay for it. How is that a good model for us?" Sargent asks.

HarperCollins, which does sell to libraries, has drawn the library community's sharpest criticism for its recent 26-lend cap on e-books. In an open letter published in March, Josh Marwell, president of sales, points to an estimated 40 million e-reading devices expected to be installed in 2011, asserting that selling e-books to libraries would "undermine the emerging e-book ecosystem." In response, a number of library systems and consortia nationwide now refuse to purchase HarperCollins e-books, while others wrestle with the decision.

"We are still buying HarperCollins books," Eidelman reports. "We're not thrilled about it. But does HarperCollins really care if libraries don't buy their e-books if they don't want to sell them to us in the first place? Who are we really punishing here? In the end, it is the customer not getting the service."

On the other hand, many publishers do see the opportunities, notably, Random House. At the 2011 Tools of Change conference, in February, Ruth Liebmann, vice president and director of account marketing at Random House, told attendees that libraries "create readers," and "buzz" for Random House titles. "Our goal is to have our books available in libraries at the same time and in the same formats as they are available in retail." A library sale doesn't compete with a retail sale, she added; "a library sale is a sale."

The vendor community, meanwhile, definitely sees library e-books as an opportunity. In the last year alone, two major library database providers have purchased popular e-book platforms: EBSCO bought netLibrary, and Proquest acquired eBrary. At the recent ALA Midwinter meeting, eBrary's Chris Warnock told PW that eBrary, already a successful, well-liked platform in academic libraries, would take a run at market leader Overdrive.

More competition and more experimentation with new models‚ such as subscriptions, multiple use, and browser-based e-books‚ would be welcome, librarians say, noting that the current landscape is rife with challenges. For one, libraries are spending more and more time and money training staff, troubleshooting, and teaching patrons not only how to use the service but often how to use their devices. In fact, librarians have become like the e-reader Geek Squad. "As a consortium, we set aside five days and did nothing but train staff to help patrons download content," Eidelman says. "We trained over 200 librarians."

But the biggest issue for libraries revolves around collection management and ownership. In Kansas, the state library is currently embroiled in a tense, high-profile negotiation with Overdrive, which is insisting on a hefty price increase for a new contract. Overdrive insists the increase is necessary because of a significant rise in e-book checkouts among the state's participating libraries. Like many libraries in this difficult economy, the Kansas state library consortium is facing a deep budget cut. If a deal cannot be struck, Kansans could lose access to much of its e-book collection.

For librarians, the situation in Kansas puts the downside of e-books in sharp relief. The copyright bedrock upon which libraries are built, librarians say, stands to be trumped by contracts in the digital age. And if one accepts that the future of reading is digital, the e-book discussion becomes much bigger than libraries angling for access to bestselling e-books; it becomes a fight for their future. "Libraries are screwed" is how Ann Arbor, Mich., librarian Eli Nieburger famously put it, during Library Journal's virtual conference last September, "E-Books at the Tipping Point." The move to digital is not just a change of format, he said then, but "a move away from content that is ownable and shareable, and that's a problem when your organization is in the business of owning and sharing content."


According to the AAP's most recent figures, from February 2011, e-book sales jumped a hefty 202.3% over February 2010. Meanwhile, print sales continue to steadily decline across all formats, with adult hardcover sales plunging 43% during the same period. Those numbers reflect the true challenge facing publishers: managing the decline of print against the rise of e-books.

Librarians understand that pressure, and at BEA 2011, they don't expect to solve all the problems of the digital future. Rather, they hope to urge publishers to take a deep breath. E-book demand is surging, and questions loom for everyone. But overall, Eidelman stresses, e-books still represent a small fraction of the 14 million total circulations Suffolk logged last year. So why not see how things play out before imposing restrictions like that of HarperCollins? Why not sell to libraries, if you're Macmillan or S&S? Libraries have been early adopters of e-books, why not let them help? After all, libraries and publishers have a critical goal in common: serving readers.

"We think it is important to note that the entire e-book experience is still in its baseline year as far as service is concerned," Rodgers says. "Many of the suppositions that publishers, vendors, and libraries are making are void of the information that the next 12 to 18 months of customer experience will give us."

At a symposium at the Darien, Conn., Public Library on April 5, HarperCollins's Marwell acknowledged the publisher's deepest fear—that library e-books would turn "legions of buyers into borrowers." But he also softened his stance, saying the 26-lend limit may be flexible, and he urged continued dialogue. "We're in the water," he said.

Librarians must be in the water, too, says Eidelman. This year, she'll be attending the pre-BEA digital conference as well as the show itself. "If librarians want in on the conversation, we better show up," she tells PW. "This discussion has to happen, and there has to be a forum other than Twitter."