Pay Authors for Library e-Book Use?

In a guest post on The Digital ReaderRita Matulionyte discusses the practice of Public Lending Rights (PLR), under which authors (and publishers) are paid when patrons check out library items. This practice is commonplace in Europe, Canada, and (for print) Australia. Her focus is on why Australia might consider the practice for e-books as well.

"But e-book lending is increasing and, according to the Australian Library and Information Association, e-books are likely to reach 20% of library holdings by 2020. Also, most, if not all, self-published titles are done so in digital format only. Such self-published titles, if lent by libraries, would not qualify for any remuneration.

For this reason, authors and publishers have been lobbying the Government to extend the Lending Rights Schemes to e-books. Although the Book Industry Collaborative Council made such proposal already in a report of 2013, nothing has happened of yet.

One of the main reasons why e-books are not covered is that e-book lending is quite different from print book lending. In case of print books, authors and publishers are arguably losing on customers and revenues when libraries loan their books for free.

At present, in the case of e-books, many publishers chose not to sell these books to libraries. Also, publishers assume that libraries will lend e-books to many readers so they often charge libraries three or more times the price that consumers are paying for the same e-books.

While publishers charge libraries high prices for e-books, writers complain that these amounts do not reach them. Publishing contracts often don’t specify whether and how much authors receive for e-books sales or for e-lending."

She concludes that applying PLR to e-books could help authors and the Aussie publishing industry but would not be enough to make a measurable difference in the current Australian political situation.

In U.S. Libraries, with our strong commitment to Right of First Sale, PLR is anathema.

Or is it?

 While most U.S. librarians may have begun as First Sale absolutists, for digital content at least many have changed their minds. The 26 circ lease model, much decried at the time (I’ve been told some people in publishing even lost jobs over it), has in fact proven to be perhaps our best digital content model-–far better than outright ownership given that we must often get multiple copies to satisfy demand for popular titles under a one-user circ model. Putting a time limit (one year or two) on this model can create issues, but it is still solid compared to most alternatives.

Libraries also have a tradition of supporting authors. If we could work out a model under which authors got paid a fair price per use for e-books, I doubt many librarians would object.

Let’s identify the real problem source of the issue in the U.S.: not authors, not libraries, but publishers. That is from whom we are (through vendors) typically leasing content. The prices for best sellers are exorbitant; as pointed out in the post above, it is by no means certain that the extra money is going to the authors. The current use models are not beneficial and do not allow libraries to take advantage of e-book full possibilities.

Perhaps authors and librarians could find common cause, advocating for a pay-per-use or subscription model that allowed authors to be fairly paid per download while freeing librarians to circ e-book content without restrictions. Some publishers are already using such a model with library vendors and don’t seem to be losing their shirts. This model is working in libraries for audiobook, music, and video content. Why not e-books? The ALA’s Digital Content Working Group has approached the Big 5 to explore such models, but, with one or two small experiments excepted, has mostly been stalled or ignored. We could perhaps start with backlists and, once established as effective, expand the model. Perhaps publishers could offer a variety of use models, depending on the title, its likely popularity, and potential staying power.

Authors, we like you to get paid. Many libraries are working to forge beneficial relationships with local writers to get them noticed and earn some sales. Why not join us? Push for more open models. Let’s saw through the mind-forged manacles. We have nothing to lose but limited circs and inequitable distribution of revenue.

ReadersFirst wishes all a joyous holiday and a prosperous 2017. Santa, if we could have anything, it would be a year in which the library e-Content experience gets even better (look for big news from NISO and LEAP as early as January) and librarians, authors. publishers, and vendors all sat down for a big feast to share, promote common interests, and promulgate a variety of flexible e-book models that let us increase circulation, getting more content into the hands of more users while being fair to the authors and publishers who produce that content.