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Publishers Have Nothing to Fear From Library eBooks – Hardly Anyone Uses Them

One of the more worrisome and contentious topics in digital publishing has been revealed to be little more than smoke today. The Pew Research Center released a report this morning that showed not only do few Americans use the electronic resources at their library, most couldn’t even tell you if  their local library even had ebooks.

The data they released today comes from a poll conducted back in December 2011, so it’s not as current as we might like (especially given the post Christmas spike in tablet and ereader ownership). But it’s also the only current info on this topic, so I’m pleased to have it. A total of 2,986 Americans were polled in phone surveys, and about 78% (2,329) said they’d read a book in the past year. The answers given by those respondents have been analyzed for this new report.

According to this report, Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, et al have been complete off in their assumptions about library ebooks. While many of the major publishers believe that library ebooks have sapped sales from the consumer market,  the reality is that far few people are checking out library ebooks than buying.

Pew found that a mere 12% of respondents had checked out a library ebook, a figure that is significantly lower that the 20% who had bought an ebook (reported by Bowker). That’s a startling difference, isn’t it? If I were worried about losing sales, these figures would go a long way to reassure me. (Of course, I would have gotten the data before making a business decision, but that’s just me).

Of course, that low utilization rate might be due to ignorance, not disinterest.  A significant majority of respondents (62%) said they did not know if their library offered ebooks or other digital content, while only 22% answered in the affirmative and 14% said no. That’s surprising, considering that only earlier this week the ALA announced that 76% of libraries lend ebooks.

What’s more, even when buying vs borrowing is considered in isolation, far more ebookers prefer to buy their content than get it for free. Pew found that fully 55% of the ebookers with library cards preferred to buy their ebooks, while just over a third (36%) could be identified as semi-freegans – they preferred to borrow them from any source.

And they do read (and buy) a lot. Of the 12% who check out library ebooks, half read 29 or more books a year, compared to 23 for those who don’t check out ebooks. And guess what? They’re more likely to look in an ebookstore for a title than at their library (47% vs 43%).

Fascinating statistics, no? It’s almost a surprise how unsurprising it is. I’ve long had a gut feeling that library ebooks didn’t have nearly the effect on the consumer market as the publishers assumed, and now I see I was right. (Is there a word for that? I bet the Germans have one.)

Unfortunately, these stats won’t have much effect on how some publishers respond to libraries; if they were the type to look for data before making a decision then HarperCollins wouldn’t have enacted the 26 title limit, Penguin wouldn’t be trying the 1 year license pilot, and Random House wouldn’t have jacked up their prices.

via Pew Research Center

image by fdtate

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