How “eLibraries” Work Today – And How They SHOULD Work


Despite the boldness of the title, I’m not too sure that I have the best solution here, but the way it works for most libraries is simply daft.

Regular old “dead tree” books are typically purchased for the recommended retail price or less by a library, who then make an electronic note every time a book is rented out. Each rental equals pennies, or in some parts of the world, a fraction of a penny, which then finds its way usually once a year back to the publisher and, ultimately, author.

Fair enough. That’s the system we’ve had for years, and by and large, it seems to work.

But ebooks tend to operate in a very different way, and I don’t think it’s very fair on libraries or readers. Partly because it’s based on the old “dead tree” paradigm: namely that each library can only have a finite number of copies.

Ebook “rentals” are currently like how video rentals used to be in the glory days of Blockbuster (may it rest in peace). Video stores used to get access to movies a good 6-12 months before the general public. When a film was available to the public, it maybe cost say, £10-£15 in the UK. But the rental pre-release was some £60-£150 pounds. A lot of money. The video rental company would have to guess how many copies they might need, and pay that much for each copy. In return, they only had to pay a fraction of the rental price back to the studio, and could pocket the rest. After all, they are the ones taking the risk and buying the videos at great cost in the first place.

Then, after the movie Titanic, things changed. James Cameron made sure that Titanic was released to the public at the same time that it was available to the professional rental market. So the video rental business only had to pay the same price as anybody else for that video. However, it meant that the video rental companies had to give the movie studio a much larger percentage of every copy rented. Soon after, everyone copied the business model. It worked better for all of them. Less risk for rental companies, and more revenue (if the film was good) for the studios.

Obviously streaming ate the video/DVD/Blu-ray rental business’ lunch for other reasons in the end, but that’s not the point of the story. The point is when it comes to ebooks, things work on the same floored model as the old VHS rental market of the 80s and 90s.

Currently an “eLibrary” buys (at a much higher than retail price) a set number of licenses for ebooks. Then they pay a tiny amount of each license rented, that goes back to the publisher. It’s bad for customers, (if your chosen ebook is currently being rented out to 10 people, and the “eLibrary” you’re using only has 10 licenses, you’re going to have to wait, just like with a traditional physical book), but it’s also bad for the “eLibraries”: They have to guess how many licenses to purchase in advance, and risk lots of money. Libraries aren’t exactly organisations with an abundance of wealth.

So an idea I had, was to do to ebook rentals what Titanic did to the video rental business. Allow “eLibraries” an unlimited amount of licenses. No charge. But each time the book is rented out, the small fee that ends up in the publisher’s hands is slightly larger. A popular book gets more, a less popular book gets, well, less.

Amazon is in certain ways already doing this, with an aspect of its Prime service. As an author who makes use of it, I can tell you that – for me and many of my readers at least – it works.

Could we see this rolled out in more ways? I really don’t know. I say let a thousand business models bloom, and the best will stand up on their own. But I’m sure about one thing: the current broken model shouldn’t be allowed to last.