An announcement this week by hoopla digital and HarperCollins augurs big changes in the ways that public libraries make e-books available. It sets the stage for realignment of the relationships between publishers and libraries, and it could have longer-term ripple effects on the entire e-book market.
For more than a decade, public libraries have been able to “lend” e-books using a certain model: the library “acquires” a title through an e-lending platform such as OverDrive; the library then has one “copy” that it can make available to patrons at a time. The platform sends each patron a DRM-protected file that allows reading for up to the library’s lending period. If one patron has the e-book “checked out” then another patron can’t read it until the period expires or the first patron “returns” it.
The library technologist Eric Hellman calls this model “Pretend It’s Print (PIP),” while the industry term is “one copy, one user.” PIP is an apt term because the library pays a fixed price for the title, just as it would do if it were acquiring a print book, and the publisher can account for it much as if it were a sale. If a library wants to enable more than one patron to read the title at a time, it has to “acquire” multiple “copies.” (Meanwhile, “one copy, one user” may be a handy metaphor but has little to do with the number of copies of e-books e-lending services actually make.)
Hoopla digital, an OverDrive competitor, is a digital “lending” platform for libraries run by Midwest Tape, a leading supplier of library-ready physical media products (such as CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs). It had been licensing digital audiobooks from HarperCollins since last year (as well as from many indie publishers). The new deal expands the relationship into e-books. HarperCollins will make over 15,000 titles available, though apparently not including frontlist titles.
What’s new here? Instead of libraries paying a fixed upfront price, as in the PIP model, they pay per “loan,” and there are no longer any limits on how many people can read an e-book at the same time. This is a boon to library patrons: it means that all titles can be available at any time, with no waiting lists. Otherwise the reader experience is much the same as with PIP, as is the technology used to deliver and display e-books.
The innovation is really on the financial and licensing side. At a basic level, this arrangement is risky for libraries. With the hoopla digital model, Libraries can’t budget for “acquisitions” as they have done with print books for centuries; instead they have to bear less predictable costs that rise and fall with demand for titles. At the same time, it enables libraries to license long-tail titles that they wouldn’t normally “acquire” because they don’t expect sufficient demand to make the one-time price worthwhile. That’s another benefit to users.
Publishers, meanwhile, get paid based on actual readership, not on a per-title basis. That’s good for them conceptually, because it makes libraries more like channel partners. In fact this model isn’t really new; it has been discussed for several years, and many indie publishers already support it. Hoopla digital has offered it since 2014. So why are major publishers slow to embrace it?
One reason is author contracts. Many author contracts don’t provide for handling royalties on much other than simple book purchases. From the perspectives of rights management and royalty processing, both e-book retail and PIP library e-book revenues can be treated similarly to print book sales. Things get difficult for publishers when they license into access models that fall short of purchases: sometimes they have to pay authors for each access as if it were a purchase, even if a user only reads a few pages, because the author contracts won’t allow otherwise.
As Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy admitted at a book publishing conference recently, that has been an obstacle to major publishers’ participation in Netflix-like subscription services like Scribd and Oyster, and/or it has been unworkable for the services themselves (e.g., Oyster shut down two years ago). Trade book authors typically own copyrights in their works and only license publishers for specific purposes, such as print book sales; so publishers have little flexibility to enter into innovative license agreements without having to renegotiate author contracts. And renegotiating author contracts is, to put it mildly, not scalable.
The other big reason for reluctance to license into these new models is that publishers and authors alike worry that making content available in smaller chunks or for limited times will harm revenues. We saw this happen in music, as individual track downloads displaced album sales and then subscription streaming displaced downloads — although streaming revenue has now grown to more than make up for losses in downloads.
HarperCollins is the perennial first mover among the major trade houses in embracing new digital business models. It was the first of the Big Five to license e-book subscription services as well as other innovative models such as P+E bundling. It’s surely happy to get revenue streams from libraries that follow the same demand-based patterns as their retail channels, even if it leads to challenges with author contracts and rights and royalties systems.
HarperCollins’s deal with hoopla digital should be a major turning point in big trade publishing’s relationship with public libraries. Already OverDrive and other e-lending providers have announced that they will support similar deals, and HarperCollins will license into all of those arrangements. In fact, OverDrive has given the new model a name: “Cost-per-Circ (CPC).” This is preferable to hoopla digital’s marketing-ese “dynamic content.”
Yet there are two ironies here. First, the CPC model could make the future for e-book subscription services even bleaker than it is now. If more publishers support CPC, you’ll get the equivalent of a “Netflix for e-books” service from your public library for free (or at least paid for with your tax dollars, euros, pounds, etc.). — so why would you pay $9.99 (Amazon Kindle Unlimited), $8.99 (Scribd), 7,99€ (Youboox, France), or 11,99€ (Skoobe, Germany) per month? In particular, HarperCollins surely understands that CPC will help publishers promote libraries as competition for Amazon.
The second irony is that CPC is tantamount to an e-book rental model. (When I asked Eric Hellman for a name for this model along the lines of PIP, he replied “it’s just rental.”) Some early e-book services in the U.S. offered rentals, which were met with indignant backlash from people who insisted that “ownership” was the only acceptable model — never mind that whether you actually own a downloaded e-book is debatable — and that rentals were some sort of evil plot to deprive people of their rights (although e-book rental has been successful outside the U.S., such as in Japan and South Korea). Now libraries are eagerly embracing rentals, albeit ones users only pay for indirectly through taxes; Hoopla digital has already signed up public library systems in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
The big question now is whether major trade publishers will ever make their high-demand frontlist titles available through either of these models — library CPC or paid subscription. If publishers look at how the major record labels made their current hits available to interactive streaming services and then mostly failed in attempts to hold them back later (e.g. Taylor Swift’s clashes with Spotify), while the big movie studios have kept their windowing systems for theatrical releases largely intact, they’ll see that once they do that there’s no going back. Therefore it’s probably going to be a while before we see frontlist titles from Big Five trade publishers — even from HarperCollins — available to unlimited patrons at your local public library.