Why you may have to visit a library to borrow an eBook

This is a companion piece to an article for RegHardware on eBook pricing.

One of the benefits of the ePub format and the Adobe DRM that it uses is that it’s possible to borrow books from libraries. Books can be downloaded from a library, and will automatically expire after a couple of weeks.

The range of books available at the moment is somewhat limited, but hopefully it will increase over time, and it will make eBooks and readers even more useful for those who are unable to get to a library during opening hours. Obviously, there are potentially very significant benefits for the disabled who might not be able to get to a library at all, but even the able-bodied but busy can find the service useful too.

Many libraries around the UK operate an e-lending service in association with Overdrive, who also operate some bookstores. You can find your own library by searching at http://search.overdrive.com/ – my local Hackney library is included, though so far the collection of books is small, and I found it a little fiddly downloading a book and copying it to my Sony Reader – something that’s likely because I use a Mac, and the Mac version of Adobe Digital Editions doesn’t support transfer to the reader. In practice though, the system works, and works quite well.

Clouds on the horizon

Last month, the Publisher’s Association set down ‘baseline guidance’ on what libraries should expect when they offer eBooks for lending. That guidance says, in essence, that if you want to borrow an eBook, you’ll have to go to your library in person and download it on to your device there.

You don’t need to think too hard to see that this could, effectively rule out e-lending for many people, including some of those to whom it offers the most benefit.

Campaign group Voices for the Library described the policy as “potentially catastrophic for ebook provision in public libraries” and told me they were particularly concerned about the impact on disabled people.

For their part, the Publishers Association stress the guidance is not a line in the sand – publishers are free to allow ‘remote downloading’ of their titles if they wish, and they’re confident that solutions can be found for disabled users, too, perhaps by registering only certain users for access to remote downloading.

Why has this happened?

The catalyst – though the Publishers’ Association stress that it’s not a direct cause – would seem to be an incident in which library books were downloaded in China. In fact, hearing the report on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was a widespread issue with remote lending.

According to Overdrive, that’s not the case, and there was just one incident, which was resolved swiftly. Overdrive works on the principle of one copy, one lender – so if a library has one electronic copy of a book, and someone else already has it signed out, no one else can borrow it until the rental period has expired, just like with printed book.

Accepting that there was just one case, when I talked to Richard Mollet, Publishers’ Association CEO, he stressed that the real issue was not that remote downloading happened, but that there was an assumption on the part of the library concerned that it would be ok if anyone were able to remotely lend, and their chief concern is that that could be “enormously damaging to the retail part of the market.” It was, in effect, a reminder of the need to have “sensible and reasonable” policies in place.

Full statements from both Richard Mollet, and Overdrive’s CEO Steve Potash, are at the end of The Bookseller article mentioned above.

Other library solutions

Meanwhile, some publishers are looking at other solutions for libraries. Public Library Online is a system backed by publishers like Bloomsbury and Canongate, and uses a Flash interface to allow access to books via the browser.

The service boasts that there’s no need to download anything, or to buy a reader – but it does also mean that you need an active internet connection to read the book, so it’s less amenable to, say, reading in bed or on the train, than the ePub download model offered by Overdrive.

At the moment POL is in a trial phase, and one of the publishers that I spoke with emphasised that it’s not in their plans to offer downloads via libraries at all, though retail eBooks will still be available. If you want to access their books via a library, it will be via POL or through borrowing a printed book.

The future

In terms of borrowing eBooks from libraries, I think it’s fair to say that the dust has yet to settle. Richard Mollet told me that readers aren’t going to see titles disappearing from their library e-lending services, and many publishers may decide they’re happy to allow remote lending for future releases anyway.

The view from libraries themselves is a little less clear – when I asked Hackney for a statement, I was told the library is awaiting more information from their supplier (Overdrive), and until then, remote lending remains available.

If remote lending does become restricted, personally I think it’s hard to see how eBook lending will take off, especially in the present economic climate. Across the country, local authorities are facing cuts, with staff layoffs and many library closures likely. That, surely, will make it even less likely that a system can be put in place to support users travelling to libraries and accessing computers on the premises, to load titles onto their readers.

Of course many libraries have computers already – but few people who have made the journey to one just for an eBook will want to wait while someone finishes their homework or whatever else is being done on the public PCs. And how many will find the extra cash to set aside a computer specifically for eBook downloads?

This article is a companion to a Register Hardware article on eBook pricing.

Update Feb 2011; broken Bookseller links now fixed

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