The recent announcement about the partnership between Sony and Overdrive in the support of supplying eBook distribution for libraries has me wondering if we are on the brink of a huge power shift in publishing.
In traditional publishing models, publishers have viewed the library market as significant, but very small compared to retail outlets. The library model is (of course) that they buy once, and lend it out for free to their patrons. Patrons were generally a local geographic community. Publishers have never worried about retail sales being cannibalized by library borrowings.
But, now we have the eBook world, growing very rapidly, being supported by hardware and download technologies that make it easy for readers do download and read eBooks. Sales of eBooks in the past 2 quarters are higher than they were in the previous year before that.
Publishers are seeing this shift, and while many don’t believe that eBooks are cannibalizing print book retail sales, others are not so sure. Amazon, with its retail power is forcing the price of eBooks into a range under $10 – and traditional publishers are already wringing their hands saying that their businesses are unsustainable at that price level.
But what happens to publisher revenues if it is as easy for a reader to go online, and download an eBook for free from their library, as it is to go on Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com and pay $10 for it?
Where is the value to the reader to pay money for an experience you can have for free? The way Amazon works, you can’t lend your copy of an eBook to anyone else anyway. Since few if any people will ever see your eBook collection, do you need to keep them around after you have read them anyway? Sometimes, perhaps, but not always. And so what, if the book is unreadable in 60 days you probably finished it anyway? Certainly there is value if these conditions of free are not acceptable to the reader, but, for many titles, they well may be.
Additionally, library patrons no longer have geographic boundaries. Going online, it’s just as easy for me to join a public library in California as it is in Massachusetts.
The rise of eBooks may mark a new, more powerful, era for libraries, and will probably cause a massive consolidation among them. However, publishers will need to contend with library sales cannibalizing retail sales. And as eBook procurement becomes easier for the reader, eBook reading will eventually cannibalize print reading. Print books will become souvenirs of a reading experience, and may be some source of revenue, but only a pittance compared to the current print models.
I’m afraid this bodes significant challenges for all publishers, but most especially the big ones, whose massive infrastructures need to be supported. Smaller, more nimble publishers who see themselves as author services companies, will be the only ones who can create business models that are sustainable.
The real question is: will this be good or bad for the reader?