Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
It wasn’t all that long ago that Penguin abruptly pulled its ebook titles from OverDrive, the service it partnered with for e-distribution to libraries, citing (somewhat vague) security concerns. Two months later, in February of this year, its rocky relationship with OverDrive finally came to an end. Both of these moves angered librarians and library patrons, who felt Penguin was unfairly refusing to sell its titles to libraries.
In an effort to support libraries and bring its titles back to their digital shelves, Penguin announced last Thursday that it would begin an ebook lending pilot program in collaboration with 3M, the New York Public Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library. Encouraged by Penguin’s renewed commitment to public libraries but wary of how effective the program will be, I asked representatives from both Penguin Group (USA) and the 3M Cloud Library to disclose details that were left out of the press release, such as the pricing structure for lending ebooks and the cost to a library for participation in the 3M Cloud Library.
The new program will work like this: Penguin will sell ebooks to libraries for a term of one year, during which time the title can be loaned to one user at a time without restriction on frequency. The media relations manager at Penguin Group (USA) confirmed in an email the rumor I’d heard that ebooks will be sold to libraries at prices “in line with retail prices.” This is exciting news indeed, considering Random House’s recent triple-fold ebook price increase for libraries. (Note: It’s a general rule that any books sold to libraries are slightly more expensive than normal retail due to their lending function, but I was assured that Penguin’s ebook library pricing would not be as drastically different than its ebook retail pricing as is Random House’s.) The disappointment in Random House’s decision expressed by many librarians, strapped by dwindling budgets, echoed throughout the library world.
It is worth noting that Penguin will release new titles for sale to libraries six months after publication, presumably as a means to prevent library ebooks from cannibalizing print sales of new bestselling titles. Random House, on the other hand, is offering its titles to libraries immediately upon publication. This delay by Penguin could be viewed as a negative aspect of the pilot program by some librarians and readers. But, hey, video stores have to wait about six months for a movie to come out on DVD and Blu-Ray, right?
Though Penguin’s pilot program with 3M sounds like a solution to the security issues Penguin feared during its partnership with OverDrive (with 3M, ebooks would be accessed via the Cloud, not downloaded locally to a device), the other concern I had about this program was whether library budgets would actually be able to support it. Based on the reaction to the Random House price hike in March, it would be yet another failure in the eyes of librarians if the 3M Cloud Library charges an expensive service fee for access to Penguin titles. Self-described as the “ebook lending service of your dreams,” the 3M Cloud Library promises to be convenient and easy to use:
With the 3M Cloud Library, patrons use personal accounts to access e-books on their devices. They can check out a book on an iPad, take notes while reading on a PC and finish the book on an Android smartphone. The bookmark feature works across all devices [except Kindle], so readers never lose their place. Patrons can read when, where and how they want.
Sounds wonderful, right? But does that mean it will come at an exorbitant cost? While 3M would not discuss specific pricing terms with me, I was told that, according to Matt Tempelis, the 3M Library Systems global business manager, the company “sells the software at a nominal service fee to [its] customers.” The pilot program will begin in August at the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library—both large institutions that won’t have difficulty paying to support a subscription to the 3M Cloud Library. But what about your local public library? Will this news mean anything to them?
At any rate, it’s a step in the direction of securing access to ebooks for public libraries. Two of the other Big Six publishers, Random House and HarperCollins, have also signed on with the 3M Cloud Library. Will Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, which are not currently selling their titles to libraries, follow suit?