Publishers Weekly’s Heidi MacDonald has done a comprehensive overview of graphic novels and libraries, and she includes a discussion of digital library programs, which are still evolving even as we speak.
OverDrive, the biggest vendor of e-books for libraries, gets no love in this article. The prices are too high and the graphic-novel catalogue is too limited. Librarian Robin Brenner would like to see comiXology offer library services, and indeed, their competitor Comics Plus is developing a library service that will roll out this summer.
According to Elder, Comics Plus, which launches in beta this summer, will offer a broad-based subscription model—libraries spend a certain amount of money and are charged for each check out, a digital file that self-deletes in two weeks. Advantages over print are discoverability and range of material. “The number of titles in your catalogue increases by an order of magnitude, and the efficiency goes way up. If a book is circulating a lot, you buy the print edition, too,” Elder says. Elder’s research included number-crunching to show that the digital lending system is profitable for all. The cost is about 50¢ per checkout, comparable to the cost of print comics; and it’s actually more profitable for publishers. “On a typical checkout a publisher makes 9¢ to 15¢. With our system, [the publisher] gets 30¢—literally everybody wins.”
Some publishers have balked at signing on, perhaps for fear of piracy, MacDonald speculates, but they might be getting it exactly wrong: Brenner thinks readers aren’t demanding digital comics from libraries because they are going to pirate sites instead. For a publisher like Viz, whose series can run for many volumes, it makes sense to participate in a system that gives them something for each checkout, rather than have readers go to pirate sites for their fix.
One thing to keep in mind with regard to all this is how digital services regard e-books. My local library has OverDrive, and I never use it, because they treat e-books like print books: The library buys a limited number of copies, and each book can only be checked out by one patron at a time, so when I go to look for a book, it’s never available. iVerse’s system, as it was explained to me, allows unlimited checkouts, and charges the library for each one. When the library reaches its spending limit, the comics disappear, although Elder told me there would always be a selection of comics available for free. So what iVerse is selling is really access to a real digital library, rather than single e-books. Instead of hedging their bets and only getting digital editions of the most popular titles (which are then always unavailable to most patrons), they can offer access to an entire library and not only allow multiple people to read the same book at once but also avoid paying for unpopular titles.