Why buy when you can borrow?

As if publishers weren’t nervous enough about the growing popularity of e-books (and the trend’s subsequent business challenges), they’ve got an unlikely new nemesis: public libraries. For the last year, libraries across the globe have been adding e-books to their catalogs. The reader downloads the book onto their computer, cell phone or e-reader – where it stays for two weeks before automatically expiring from the user’s account. Borrowers have access to just one e-book at a time and are put in a waiting list if their desired title is not available – just like with physical books.

The company responsible is OverDrive, a digital media service providing libraries with the necessary infrastructure to lend e-books. To date, OverDrive partners with 8,500 libraries in the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Turkey and the UK. The New York Public Library, for example, has about 18,300 e-book titles. Watch a short interview with OverDrive CEO Steve Potash:

Scholastic have their own personal platform: a subscription-based e-book collection called bookflix. Available in 500 libraries worldwide, it offers children their favourite titles in digital form – all supplemented with educational videos and interactive games.

While the increasing popularity of borrowing e-books bodes well for the health of literacy and reading worldwide (otherwise shown to be in decline), an article by the New York Times highlights the discontent expressed by publishers.

Publishers, inevitably, are nervous about allowing too much of their intellectual property to be offered free. Brian Murray, the chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, said [the library e-book] was “not a sustainable model for publishers or authors.”

Within the publishing world there’s a fear that consumers are becoming increasingly accustomed to receiving content for free. Macmillan chief executive John Sargent says this is the reason Macmillan’s books aren’t available in electronic form in public libraries. Publishers Simon & Schuster feel the same.

The wariness is understandable. Why would a reader pay for an e-book when they can get it for free through their local library? Borrowable e-books threaten an already burdened publishing industry and further undermine the value placed on books and authors. It becomes a question of what society values more: reading or publishing.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Why buy when you can borrow?

  1. Great post. It’s true we are spoilt these days — the Internet has made almost everything free and available at our fingertips. At the end of the day, though, if publishers aren’t able to generate content, reading can’t really happen at all. The Internet is a great leveller, but this can have complex repercussions.

  2. penelopepitstop86

    I just wrote a post a little similar to this, about Amazon’s Kindle (e-book), and Barnes & Noble’s Nook (e-book).

    Nook has just entered the market, as the only competition to the Kindle, and its main selling point is that if you have one, and your friend does, you can lend them an e-book that you’ve bought from Barnes & Noble online. They can only have it for two weeks, and the book lending is not available for all titles.

    But it does encourage the sharing of e-literature, which makes it similar to the common experience we get from reading old fashioned books.

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