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An Incomplete Report on a Flawed Pilot Program Suggests that Library eBook Loans Don’t Drive Sales

14802098605_129344b4ab_m[1]Earlier today the UK Publishers Association released a 6 month status report on the small scale library ebook lending project which had been carried on in the UK for the past 8 months. If the report is to be believed, ebook loans don’t affect the lending rate for paper books, and they also don’t drive sales *.

I wouldn’t be so sure about that last point.

As I reported in March, 4 local libraries in the UK were selected to participate in a pilot which was going to test the impact of library ebook loans on the market for paper books and ebooks. A total of 893 ebook titles (rather than the planned 1,000 titles) were contributed for the pilot by UK publishers. That’s a larger number than it appears to American eyes; the library ebook market in the UK is much more anemic than in the US.

The 6 month status report released today found that:

  •  An overall growth in e-lending.  All four authorities have seen a significant increase in e-lending, with the pilot titles constituting a significant proportion of the overall e-book downloads.
  •  A longer loan period leads to more titles being borrowed. Longer lending periods (i.e. 21 days) appears to have led to a higher number of different titles being borrowed and more patrons joining the waiting lists.
  • The increase in e-lending is not leading to a decrease in physical lending.  The participating libraries do not appear to have seen a decline in footfall or in the lending of physical books.
  • No evidence of e-book lending leading to buying. There has been extremely low take up of the opportunity to buy the borrowed e-book through use of the “click to purchase” facility.

There are some interesting conclusions here, but did you catch what was missing from the publicly available information?

For one thing, a list of titles included in the pilot, and a list of the stores which were available via the libraries' websites. There was also no mention on the possible effect that the library ebook loans may have had on sales in ebookstores elsewhere.

While I do agree that measuring the impact of library ebook loans is important, you can’t do that without at least trying to survey the entire ebook market. That was not discussed in the status report, and thus the report is incomplete.

Another problem this report is that it says that there was no evidence of ebook lending leading to buying via a co-located buy button, but what the report doesn’t mention is that the pilot neglected to offer buying solutions that a library patron might actually want to use.

I checked a few dozen titles, and the only retail option offered was Kobo (about half of the titles had no buying option at all). While I am sure some of my readers like Kobo, it has been widely reported that the Kindle Store controls three-quarters of the UK ebook market. If that is even remotely true then this part of the pilot was a complete and utter waste of time. In not offering a retail option which patrons might want, the pilot might as well not have offered any retail option at all.

And that is a shame, because the concept of pushing sales through a library website is worth investigating. The idea has its upsides, including pleasing publishers, supporting libraries via a commission, and satisfying frustrated patrons, but unfortunately I have yet to see a valid test of the idea.

As I reported last week, OverDrive isn’t adequately supporting the option here in the US. Of the 5 S&S titles in my local library, three only offered a single retail option, and that was a site I had never heard of.

And now it is clear that they are not adequately supporting it in the UK, either.

image by ironypoisoning

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George Jarrett November 24, 2014 um 8:01 pm

Totally anecdotal, but of the (very few) ebooks I have ever purchased, the second was a literary novel that I started when I borrowed it from the public library. I didn’t have time to finish it in the lending period (2 weeks), and there was a long waiting list to renew, so I bought it. I doubt I’m the only one who would pay to finish a book.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) November 24, 2014 um 10:11 pm

I get an offer from Amazon every time I borrow a book from my library that is "lent" through their mechanisms. So I have the opportunity to buy quite frequently. I never have, but I do get the emails with many books. In most cases, I can just borrow the book again. If I didn’t finish it in two weeks, I either didn’t start it and will check it out again later, read enough to know I wasn’t interested or I finished it–in all of those cases, I have no need to buy the book.

At my local library, I did ask a few questions. Ebook lending is affecting foot traffic. Ebook lending is up, checkouts/foot traffic is flat to down. This is a trend that has held for about 3 years now. My library also has pre-loaded Kindles, iPads and I think one Nook (not positive about the nook, but I know the iPad is pre-loaded with books and with an app for ePUB checkouts). Those do not get checked out much, but actual overdrive checkouts continue to be popular enough that it is commanding more of the budget.

Thomas November 24, 2014 um 11:50 pm

There’s no real way to judge the total effect of libraries on sales. After all, most readers probably have an ebook store that they prefer to use for purchases. I think most would be more likely to buy the book through Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc. rather than use the library’s system. Also, even if the patron does not buy the book that they check out, they may buy other books by that author.

I haven’t really done much reading of library e-books because my local library system is a little slow to get into e-books. I would guess that at least 80 percent of the books I’ve bought in my life were by an author that I first read for free, either from a library check-out or loan from a friend.

Rocky November 25, 2014 um 2:40 am

Another factor is where the libraries are situated, ie. low/mid/high-income areas. Buying books is an income issue for many people which is also one of the reasons why public libraries exists.

Angélique November 25, 2014 um 11:57 am

This study seems to imply that libraries should induce book sales.
If so, they didn’t get the point and the whole study was meaningless.

Nate Hoffelder November 25, 2014 um 1:56 pm

I don’t know that libraries _should_ do it, but publishers want it so OverDrive provides it. I wonder why OD does such a bad job?

J. Kirsch November 25, 2014 um 12:09 pm

This report hints at the real problem with too many publishers. Once again they have a bias that ignores the consumer, and my educated guess here is that in this "report" they found exactly what they wanted to find rather than trying to gather objective data to guide them forward.

Straightforward logic would indicate that if you give readers more discovery tools – places to try out new authors at low risk (i.e. cost), then that will have a benefit and lead to purchases. From a personal standpoint I can say that there are numerous books that I would never have purchased without first reading one of the author’s books via the library (whether e-book or print book). In the era of declining brick and mortar book stores, you would think publishers would be eager to get their books into the hands of a diverse cross-section of readers through libraries.

Of course that assumes that publishers give two shakes about understanding what readers want and why they want it, and how to deliver in order to meet those expectations. A significant chunk of the reading public wants more venues to try out an author, a series, a genre, without always purchasing. Publishers have yet to invent a better way to do this than the model of the public library lending items, whether in physical or digital form.

Even if publishers are lazy about gathering data, you would think that they could learn from the example of Amazon. Amazon has been willing to work with libraries to some extent because they clearly see a benefit.

David November 25, 2014 um 2:55 pm

More useful than a button to buy the particular book that you have just borrowed would be a quick link to OTHER books by the same author. For example, if you have borrowed the first book in the series you may well want to buy others in the same series. How many times have you borrowed a couple of books in a series from a library only to find that they do not have the later books in the series and that the books are out of print?
However, if publishers want libraries to stock their eBooks then they will have to do something about the exhorbitant pricing.

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