Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

The battle for the eBook: why publishers need libraries

Imagine this scenario:

A busy public library service. Smiling librarian. A middle aged woman woman holding a swag of newspaper clippings. She approaches the information desk: I would like to reserve some books please.'

'Yes, certainly. What shall we start with?'

The woman purses her lips, flicking through her wad of clippings. 'Tim Winton's Eyrie, please?'

The librarian types 'winton' and 'eyrie' into the system. Waits. Scans the screen. 'There are a hundred and thirty five reservations on that title.'

Yes, I thought it would be popular.'

'We've got twenty eight copies. So, it's not as bleak as it sounds.'

What about the eBook? I've just bought an iPad.'

The librarian pauses. Her smile falters. 'We have an eBook collection. But, unfortunately, we aren't allowed to purchase Winton's eBooks for our collection.

Why ever not? He's an Australian author.'

'Yes, but his publisher won't cooperate with libraries.'

Oh, that's a shame. Well put me down on the list please.'

The librarian completes the reservation. The woman makes her next request. She has four or five, on any given week. Sometimes, she comes in with her book club list. After making reservations, she browses the shelves, choosing from an eclectic mix of literary fiction and popular best sellers. She is the fiction writer's bread and butter. The educated, middle aged female reader. She is poised, ready to take on the new eBook frontier but as the librarian correctly pointed out, some publishers will not give libraries access to their eBooks titles – despite their willingness to pay, protect the author's digital rights, and loan the eBooks out to one member at a time.

This is not a new battle. It's as old as public lending. Yet in the rapidly shifting digital environment publishers are floundering and, for some reason, many have a bee in their bonnets about libraries. This is not critical to authors at the moment. As with cassettes, CDs and now downloadable audio books, libraries will continue to buy in a range of formats. But in the foreseeable future authors will begin to suffer. Indeed, even now, I know some authors who have been published exclusively in a digital format. Without their publisher's permission libraries cannot include their eBooks in their collections.

Maybe that's fair? I hear some of you say. Authors deserve to get paid for their work. If people can borrow books, they won't buy them.

That's true to a point. But I'm here to tell you a different side of the story. As a librarian and an author who has publication aspirations, I'm going to tell you why I would want my eBook available in every public library collection in Australia.

  • Libraries buy books. Take the twenty eight copies of Eyrie in the middle aged woman's library service, add in other popular, and not so popular, titles, multiply this by every public library service in Australia and you are talking about some solid buying power.
  • Libraries promote new authors. It is the librarian's job to read new books and promote the works of new and emerging authors – especially local ones.
  • Libraries hold reader related events. This includes author talks (which authors get paid for) along with in-house book talks in which library staff review and make reader recommendations. This is called free publicity.
  • Libraries produce book blogs and write reviews. Most librarians are bookophiles in their private lives. A browser reading a review on Goodreads does not care whether the reviewer borrowed or purchased the title, only how many stars it has been awarded.
  • Librarians often get asked 'what's a good book.' It is therir job to match readers with titles. To this end they read reviews, searching for hidden jewels, and also to keep abreast of what is trending. If a new author can't be in their collection they can't recommend their works to readers.
  • Libraries sell books. Not literally, granted. But book lovers do buy books. What do you think they buy their friends for gifts? And how do they become book lovers in the first place? Or try out new authors? If not at their local library service?
  • Libraries believe in equity of access. This means anyone in Australia should be able to access digital information. This includes the works of popular Australian authors – including those published exclusively in a digital format. To undermine equity of access is to undermine the foundations of our democracy.

So, those are a my reasons. Maybe you can think of others? Connor Tomas O'Brien makes some interesting observations in his article: A very quiet battle: librarians, publishers and the pirate bay. For if the middle-aged, educated female reader is the publisher's dream buyer her children are their nightmare. As the battle is waged over digital rights and equity of access, the kids are picking up their titles free on Pirate Bay. And that's a disaster for libraries, publishers and writers.



Passing the Welsh test


Tagged – my not so rolling blog tour


  1. Some very strong arguments for publishers to allow e-books in libraries here, Liz. I was educated. Hopefully technology, ideas and need will catch up to each other in a mutually workable solution soon.

  2. Lee O'Mahoney

    Working in both public and educational library arenas, I have seen the loss of our public library customers to ebook readers, in particular, Kindles. Being unable to provide Australian content ebooks to our patrons often means loss of patrons to other e-media sources and this means less user statistics at the bottom line.
    Lower loan statistics mean loss of library jobs and shorter library opening hours – a cascading effect unfortunately which can result in less services to the public.

    • I believe in America libraries took Amazon to court and won the rights to loan out their eBooks. Unfortunately, Aussie libraries don’t have so much clout.

  3. I hear you, Liz. As a newly published author with a digital first publisher, my first interest is getting people to know who I am and I can’t do this if people can’t read my books because they are e-only for now. I know publishers are worried about piracy, but it’s already happening, just like it did for the music industry. Things ended up getting sorted out there, so I hope it can be sorted out in this issue. If people borrow my book from a library, I do get paid for it, but if they download it illegally from a pirate site, I don’t get anything, possibly not even a review.

  4. Terry Tyler

    What an excellent article; I’d never thought of all this. I use my local library a fair bit and know they have an ebook section but I don’t know how extensive; and I don’t know how the UK differs from Australia.

    I have an aunt in Melbourne; perhaps you know her? Ha ha ha!!!! That was a joke, I hasten to add. I’m intrigued by your welsh-ness on here – just going to have a look at your ‘about’ bit!

  5. Well, now, wouldn’t it be lovely if I knew your aunt. 🙂 Stranger things have happened. My husband ran into the best friend of our Swiss exchange student in the wilds of Wilson’s promontory.

    I’m not sure what the situation is with eBooks in UK libraries. I’m guessing they face the same issues.

    Thanks for reading my blog. 🙂

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