The Shatzkin Files

Does Pew study prove ebooks in libraries are safe for publishers?

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I haven’t seen this written elsewhere, but the latest Pew ebook study seems to me to confirm that the publishers are doing the right thing for sales by constricting the availability of many of the most attractive books from library shelves.

That conjecture on my part comes from a data point that some may interpret a different way.

The data point that interested me is that 41% of respondents who at some time borrowed an ebook from a library bought the most recent ebook they read.

To some, this could suggest that publishers’ fears that library patrons will be weaned away from buying ebooks are overblown. Indeed, it is certainly possible that “discovery” at the library of a desirable ebook could lead to the purchase of a title for which the wait would be too long.

It could mean that.

What it seems to me more likely to mean is that the lack of library access to the most commercial titles forces those readers who care more about what they read than what they pay to purchase titles which the library doesn’t have (and which they probably “discovered” somewhere else.)

According to Jeremy Greenfield’s report on the Digital Book World site (wth apologies to them for changing their “e-book” styling to our unhyphenated standard):

“eBook borrowers being buyers is a phenomenon that’s true in the print world as well,” said Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association. “We know this anecdotally and this data that shows it is an important finding for us.”

Raphael said that ebook borrowers will discover a book they want to borrow and then see that they have to wait for it to become available and will get impatient and buy it. eBook borrowers also sometimes sample ebooks by borrowing them and then buy them.

What Raphael says is true. But it could also well be that the number purchasing books would drop sharply if all the commercial publishers made their most popular titles available, particularly if they did it without windowing.

There’s lot of other interesting data in the study. What really caught my eye is that 58% of Americans have a library card. I find that number considerably higher than my intuition would have suggested.

A couple of other data points from the study feel like they support my view that publishers are doing the right thing for their commercial interests. Pew found that 55% of the e-book readers who also had library cards said they preferred to buy their ebooks and 36% said they preferred to borrow them from any source—friends or libraries. But among the ebook borrowers, only 33% say they generally prefer to buy ebooks and 57% say they generally prefer to borrow them. Combined with the point that has gotten a lot of early attention, that most patrons don’t even know that libraries offer ebooks, I see a very strong suggestion that library availability of ebooks will reduce sales more than stimulate them.

None of this is conclusive but I thought my instinctive conjecture was out of step with the spin the study was getting and therefore worth this brief Friday post.

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  • Andrew

    and the end of the day, there are only so many hours in the week we can spend reading (not working, not watching television, not playing games) and then “reading” newspapers, magazines or Twitter “news” competes with book reading, too.

    ebook sales may have increased the [units of books sold] pie in part, because we buy ebooks and then never get around to reading them (unlike printed books there is no physical evidence staring at us, that we bought a book and haven’t read it) though ebooks might have made avid readers, read more (cutting say into newspaper/magazine reading in particular when travelling – so much easier to now always have a book at your tablet fingertips)

    will ebook lending (even if only back-list titles are available) cut into sales? Yes, to the extent that avid bood readers allocate more time to borrowed books than bought books. There will be an element of substitution here, too.

    As for readers buying the book they have just read (i.e. reading a second time or buying “for keeps”). Where is the evidence for that? This surveys simply confirm that people who read a lot of books also buy a lot of books {presumably not the same titles]. Is that really a surprise. Is it evidence that libraries support sales? I don’t think so except tot he extent that library patrons contribute to or ampolify word of mouth for  a prticular title, but for the market as whole? Nope!

    it may look like a smart choice to make back -list titles available (especially if they barely sells) but borrowed back list books might cut into the reading time of front-list books and thus reduce sales (to the extent we are ware that we will not  buy those books)

    The MD Digital for BBC made a telling comment today “if everybody across the world got their BBC fix through Netflix, then our revenues (i.e. through DVDs) would collapse by more than 80%” I wonder if any publisher has doene comparable analysis…

    making ebooks available for lending will increase the pie, if new non-readers are attracted to books, but I have seen no evidence of this happening.

    Rather is seem a zero sum game of those people who are already reading, switching to ebooks and the total time people reading not going up. Avid readers to constantly try to reduce their spend on reading and if a book can be borrowed [conveniently] for free rather than bought, then they do it. The only thing that is – temporarily – going up is the number of [e]book not being read.

    In short; we need to look more closely at micro-behaviour (if you borrow a book, do you then buy that very same title or does it at least stimulate you to buy a similar title or read more?] to understand genuine macro-trends

    • Your point about the micro-behavior is one that one of my colleagues in this office made. It is hard to interpret this data without know which titles are being borrowed and which are being bought.

      I largely agree with what you say but, of course, what you say is also true for print books but libraries have been part of our eco-system for a long time. There are people who really need the opportunity to get books for free. One of the Big Six CEOs told me a year ago that he’d be *delighted* to put ebooks into libraries if they means-tested the borrowers. But of course they won’t.


      • Andrew

        it is a great comment and maybe free access to ebook libraries (tax funded !!) should indeed be means tested. You get a library card to a  county ebook library only if you meet certain eligibility criteria. To save cost this ebook library is operated on a state or national level (oops, Overdrive, you have just gone out of business).

        the original circulation library for printed books is based on the “right of first sale” (the buyer can do what they want with a purchased book, CD or DVD and publisher, record label, movie studio has no say in the matter whatsoever), this does not apply to digital and thus the game has fundamentally changed…

        some people still miss this fact. the game has changed and very literally the laws for physical do not apply to digital

      • I have had the argument about First Sale. I wrote this blogpost almost 18 months ago.


      • Beverly

        If the library only lends out one “copy” of a digital title at a time (which they do), why WOULDN”T the right of first sale apply?

      • You’re sort of answering your own question.

        The *reason* a library only lends one copy at a time is because they don’t control the file (don’t have actual possession of it) and get what you never get when you buy a book: a license they agree to which conditions their “purchase”.


  • Melissainsc

    I do not nor will I “buy” an e-book that I cannot transfer to the device of my choosing, share easily, resell or give away. Currently, this means I do not pay for e-books. I will borrow them from a library so at least the publishers get something for my reading activity. The whole transaction is a crap deal, though, for readers, for libraries and for tax payers.

    • As I said, some people place a higher premium on choosing what they read; others place a higher premium on what they pay. From that perspective, it is still a free country.


  • Max Alexander

    Mike, your point can’t be refuted because all library borrowing, including print books, reduces sales of books. The question is whether or not the sales to libraries outweigh the lost sales to end users, many of whom would not buy the book themselves (again either print or ebook). I have no idea if I’m representative but I buy lots of ebooks and also borrow them from the library. I could never borrow every ebook I want to read (even if the publishers decided to sell them all to libraries) because of the long wait times and the fact that my library isn’t going to acquire every ebook (or print book) that I want. I don’t see how this is any different from the print dynamic, especially with publishers limiting borrow cycles of ebooks. I could be missing something here, but honestly I see a lot of misplaced fear in the industry.

    • There are significant differences.

      One is that the inconvenience of borrowing and returning a print book is much greater than the same for ebooks.

      Another is that the *benefit* of buying a print book (that you own an object) is much greater than the *benefit* of buying an ebook. So the relative *loss of value* of not owning a print book is much greater.

      A third, addressed by the much-protested HarperCollins 26-loan limitation, is that print books wear out and ebooks don’t.

      And one more is that the ebook ecosystem, including consumer acquiring habits, is still being built. It is not necessarily paranoid to be far more cautious at a time of great dynamics when the future is obviously being created than it was in what was a relatively stable world where the pace of change was glacial for a century.


      • Max Alexander

        I’d take issue with a few of your points here.

        Personally I find it much easier to locate and borrow print books from my local library than wade through the screens and download process for ebook loans. But I live in a small town with a convenient library, and the Maine inter-library ebook system just seems poorly designed to me (even though I continue to use it). Other library systems could have more convenient ebook web interfaces. For me, they’re is no particular convenience to ebook loans.

        The same for your point about the benefit of owning a print “object.” For me, that’s a negative! I don’t want any more stuff, and I love having all my books on my iPad. I can’t be the only person who views lack of a physical object as added value.

        Finally, I agree caution is a good thing, but it’s a fine and subjective line between caution and paralyzing fear. We could argue whether or not the line gets crossed, but as an author I feel like I do see it crossed at least some of the time these days. As my neighbor (and fellow library goer!) Rick Russo recently said in his BookExpo speech, the best thing publishers could do right now is develop a spine…

      • Max, the current state of ebook lending (screens, etc.) is temporary. What you need to focus on is what ebook lending should and could be versus what print book lending is and can be. At the moment, most libraries have pretty inconvenient ebook lending systems. Believe me, they don’t want to keep it that way. In fact, the ebook purchasing protocols need to improve as well. And they will.

        And although I agree with you about owning print, we’re still in a minority here. If you really believe what you say, you would, like me, be willing to pay *more* to get the ebook than to get the print book because it has more value to you. I can tell you from long experience arguing about the price and value of ebooks that you’ll look hard for another person that sees it that way without success.

        And, with all due respect to you and Rick Russo, anybody who thinks that big publishers in today’s environment need more “spine” just doesn’t understand the reality of their lives in the present age. The Department of Justice, some state Attorneys General, and some private lawsuits have turned what used to be a business primarily about stories and ideas into one that is primarily about consulting with lawyers and being triply careful anytime you talk to the press or any industry colleague. The people who run big publishing houses today are heroic *just for being there and not going home! * I wouldn’t trade places with any of those people, knowing what their business lives are like. And neither would you or Russo. Calling
        them spineless, in my opinion, is both ignorant and out of line.


      • Max Alexander

        Well I certainly would not characterize John Turner Sargent Jr. as spineless!

      • Thanks for that. I think John’s got more guts and courage than any 10 industry critics. No matter how all of this comes out, he is a hero.


  • Cynthia Orr

    Have you seen this research? Seems to contradict what you’re saying

  • Anonymous

    “What really caught my eye is that 58% of Americans have a library card. I find that number considerably higher than my intuition would have suggested.”Na. They have one. They just aren’t sure where it is. And it’s expired. And it has more fines on it than they think they really owe, or would care to pay. This might sound like a joke, but I know people in this boat. I wonder whether the no-fines model is a mistake. If there really is a big group that borrows then buys, and they are doing it because the due date hit before they finished the book, no-fines for Overdrive is brilliant. But if borrow-then-buy is an act of book collecting, no-fines is a mistake.What if, in return for selling libraries eBooks at the retail price, the publisher kept half of a dollar-a-day fine? Maybe publishers would come out ahead on revenue, and, if I had to pay the fine in person, it would increase that friction. Librarians would hate collecting money for publishers, but some of them may hate paying the Random House eBook price even more.Love your blog. 

    • Some cool ideas in there, actually. Problem is coordinating libraries, distributors, publishers, and rights confusion (agents). It’s a tricky picture but you’ve sketched out a sensible approach.


  • I’m clueless about what happens in general, having only my own experience and what is happening at my local library to go on. This is what I do know:
    * Our local library will be lucky to keep its present level of funding making new acquisitions problematic in any format.
     *All of the books under the sun could be made available to our library, but the number of books purchased is limited by funding constraints.
    * Locally, increases in ebook lending have been offset by decreases in pbook lending, but the total number of books borrowed has been pretty much unchanged. 
    *There is no evidence locally that having ebooks available has brought an influx of new library users into our library system.

    Even more anecdotally:

    * The book club I moderate at the library reads 10 books a year. The library uses inter-library loan to make sure that everyone has access to the books. More than 50% of book club members buy the books rather than borrowing them, even when they are piled on the table in front of them, and free the month before we will be discussing the book. About half of the book club members buy them digitally.
    * The librarian in charge of adult books recently bought an eReader. She has access to any book she wants and can order both ebooks and pbooks if the library does not already have them. She reports that she is now buying several ebooks a month, after not having purchased a book for a very long time.

    • Thanks for the anecdata, which is mostly what we have these days about library ebook borrowing.

      The question publishers will ask is whether that librarian would be buying all those ebooks if they were all available to her through the library system.


      • I guess the only answer I have is that given the reality of funding, even if every book published as an ebook were to be available to libraries, the budget of today’s library systems will limit what they buy. 

        There is an interesting Canadian study, using data up through May 2011, here:

        From the article, I (cherry) picked this quote:

        “In support of the perception that the immediate availability of eBooks is more of a factor than for print books, Anne Collins of Knopf Random Canada notes: “There is some sign that e‐books are leading to impulse purchases in a way we haven’t seen for a long time because of the price point.” This mindset of instant gratification carries over to library use where price is not a consideration but wait time certainly is.EBook hold trends combined with dramatically increasing use suggest that library users will increasingly grow frustrated with the delay in libraries delivering eBooks to them due to the one reader per copy at atime requirement. “

      • Yes, increasingly over time. And, come to think of it, that probably gives the publishers another reason to be cautious about the ebook availability. They’re still trying to sell print versions, remember. So they could conclude that the library will buy the print copy of a “must have” but, if the digital were available, might not.


      • I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but  our library is unlikely to do that.    Maybe when poor people, old people, and the tech impaired all magically have (and can use) devices this could change, but for now, choosing digital over paper is not in alignment with their mission. A university library might make a different decision.

  • With so arguments for and against the power of Amazon, Apple and the Big 6 Publishers, one would think the library sales discussion would be focused on Overdrive’s monopoly on library distribution.  Librarians certainly noticed when Amazon granted Overdrive distribution of Kindle titles and Penguin certainly noticed when Overdrive put their titles into the Amazon lending program without permission. 

    • One conspiracy theorist I know suggested that Amazon made the deal with OverDrive precisely to drive publishers away from OverDrive. It sure looked from the outside like a cause-effect thing with Penguin.

      3M and Baker & Taylor are trying to compete. I know of at least one other company poised to do the same. I imagine this space gets more competitive pretty quickly, but the switching costs for libraries are real.


      • I wonder if publishers could sweeten the pot to assist libraries with their switching costs if a system that the libraries and publishers liked better were to be developed. 

        What would happen if a system were devised that would include a link to the book on the publisher’s website (or the publisher’s resellers of choice) for every book listed? Perhaps combined with windowing if the goal is really to promote pbooks (something I don’t actually get as I would think the goal at some point has to morph into simply selling books).

        I know that libraries and IT departments here are definitely not thrilled with Overdrive. It also seems to me that ebook availability, both in terms of the size of the catalog and the availability of a given book on a given day will be inadequate for a very long time. A service that makes it easy to click and buy has to be a good thing.

      • I think OverDrive offers a “buy button” for those libraries that want to employ it. In any case, I think you’re thinking along a productive track.

      • They are going to have to do something different. Now that the Overdrive mobile app is getting better/easier to use, people don’t even need a computer to get library books onto a device.

        I haven’t been able to find anything about a buy button on the Overdrive site–or elsewhere. I can use web search from within Overdrive and find books to buy that way. 

        Analytics would be interesting.  It would be good to know what folks do when the book they are looking for isn’t in the collection or if it has a wait list. Do they go to a pirate site, a reseller, borrow another eBook instead, search the pBook collection for the same book?

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  • Personally I would like to see a further study for correlated data to explore these potential relations for pricing points and lending trends. Here in Europe such studies have been done, but the results indicate a strong causal relation between higher price points and increase in lending trends. Where excluded from lending distribution channels, the higher price points do not lead to higher sales. Instead the spending patterns migrate to different and lower price points. And thus other books. 

    • There’s a certain futility in accumlating data at these early stages in ebook development. Europe is in an early adopter stage and the relatively few people who will now read ebooks might not tell us what the behavior will be when the practice of reading on screens is more widespread.


  • Matthew Williams

    It will certainly effect whether a publisher takes a chance on an author that is not a sure bet.  Who buys books they aren’t sure they will like?  The library, of course.  As a consumer I could never buy the amount of books I read and would certainly not shell out cash for a book I wasn’t absolutely certain I was going to like.  On the other hand, I would take a chance on reading an author I can check out for free at the library and if I get hooked I’m likely to buy that author in the future.  So, I guess I think that the way things are going publishers will take less and less chances on unknowns and stick to best sellers that they know consumers will buy.

    • The big publishers do between 2500 and 5000 titles a year each. They might cut back their outputs but if they sustain them at that level, they’ll be forced to go beyond the sure winners.


  • Mwitbeck

    At first blush, I’d also agree that “58% of Americans have a library card”  seems a little high.  On the other hand, where else can you go to: rent movies for free (they’ll even let you reserve them), access the internet at no charge from the library’s computer and to rip their audio CD’s for your enjoyment into perpetuity?
    So yes, 58% seems more reasonable in that light.  The numbers that actually use their library card to check out books—much lower.

    • It’s a good point. I wonder whether the libraries are getting close to digital downloads on the movie side and how that is being regarded by the Hollywood folks…


  • Big jump in logic here. In this case A = B does not mean A= C. This study did not look at whether or not those books that ereader owners bought were available in the library. There are plenty of print books available in the library and have been for years and yet the publishing print industry has been flourishing – for years. So sorry can’t get behind this faulty logic leap – more research is needed directly addressing the correlation you’re making.  

    • Absolutely: pure speculation with lots more data needed. That’s all. Didn’t mean to suggest that it was anything else.

      But 41% having bought their last one was being spun as evidence that “library ebook borrowers are buyers” as if that proved publishers should reconsider. I was pointing out that another interpretation was at least as plausible and, to my way of thinking, even more likely.


      • Yes and no. That 41% figure related to ebooks does correlated with years of data about the print purchasing habits of library card holders. 

        Libraries have been lending books for free for years and haven’t put publishers out of business. The speculation that ebooks in libraries will change that is based on fear and a desire to take away the right of the first sale doctrine. 

        The belief that creating “friction” for library ebook lending through delayed availability and complicated loaning practices will drive up books sales is foolish. It will only drive up pirating of ebook copies. It’s far easier to find the latest best seller on a torrent site than it is in a library. 

        Libraries are not the enemy of publishers they are powerful partners for the individuation and marketing of ebooks. 

        Additionally libraries are one of the foundations of a free and democratic society providing life long learning and educational opportunities regardless of background, race, socio-ecomic class etc. They deserve the support of everyone – even publishers. 

      • No publisher denies the importance of the mission of libraries.

        But if you have a fiduciary responsibility to a copyright owner, as well as an investment of your own, you can’t help but notice that — ultimately — there would be no difference 90% of the time to a person reading an ebook whether they got it from a library (for free) or from a store (for money). Torrent and other copyright-violating opportunities aside (and, fortunately, copyright still makes a difference to many people.) That’s not the world we live in, but even recognizing that underscores the fact that we’re still in a developmental stage.

        It is also true that you get more value as a consumer from buying a printed book than you do from buyng an ebook; the value relationship with the consumer — what price around what set of consumption rules — is still being worked out and the retail marketplace is being developed, with publishers hoping desperately that we’ll see a stable market of multiple vigorous players. They want to use their biggest titles to build the retail market and they see library distribution as a distraction to that.

        And I think you can also assume that the position of the big publishers reflects similar concerns from the big agents.


      • Again yes and no. Perhaps they aren’t outright denying the importance of libraries but their behavior would indicate otherwise. 

        Many publishers had record profits last year on ebook sales. Record profits at a time when library funding is being cut. Libraries understand that publishers and authors need to make a profit, we don’t want them to go out of business, that’s why we’re willing to pay for books. The problem is that publishers see every library book circulation as a lost sale which is not the case. If it weren’t for public libraries I wouldn’t have bought more books – I would have read less. 

      • Bobbi, (most) publishers don’t see “every library book circulation as a lost sale” but they do see the dynamic of ebooks lending and buying as being considerably different than print books, and they also see that there’s a lot they don’t know yet about it. And they’re risk-averse.


  • Giulio

    My impression is that you confuse commercial availability of an ebook title for digital lending (about 500.000 or more titles in the US) with the availability of titles for the patrons, that is with the actual availability for the final user (average collections of ebooks in US public libraries are composed of 5.000 titles). If – just as a paradox – the average collection would be 500.000 this would mean an enormous increase in ebook sales in the US… So your comment on the Pew Report looks sort of… well flawed 😉

    • I didn’t confuse those numbers. I didn’t know them and I didn’t take them into account.

      What I was trying to say is that anybody who claims that the “fact” that 41% of the ebook borrowers bought an ebook recently proves that ebook availability in libraries isn’t bad for ebook sales is leaping to a counterintuitive conclusion.


      • Giulio

        ok but whatever we want to say about how “safe” is lending ebooks in libraries must take into account those two numbers (what is commercially available for libraries and what is actually abailable for patrons) otherwise we never touch the actual magnitude of digital lending phenomenon: the fact the 41% of library users bough an ebook is – in my opinion – strictly correlated to the scarcity of copies in libraries. This scarcity is the foundation of the public library model from the XIX century: someone (state, local administrations, local benevoles, etc.) buys a limited quantity of contents that are subsequently redirected for free to the community… This model is based on the fact that libraries can afford to respond only to a very limited percentage of the demand from the public. This is truism we’re often forgetting when discussing about digital contents (and especially ebooks) in libraries.

      • We seem to be in general agreement that the scarcity of ebooks in libraries is partly driving ebook sales so we’re left to discuss the *amount* of scarcity that is optimum. In the print world there is something called the McNaughton Plan (don’t know how popular it is these days, but it was huge years ago) by which libraries get extra copies of a bestseller on a basis by which they can then give them back and they’re sold as used books. So the libraries get those extra copies cheaper. Used to be the way they kept up with demand on a bestseller but weren’t stuck with far more copies than made sense when the bestseller run was over.