Can Digital eBook Lending from Libraries Hamper Book Sales?

At a recent event in London many publishers and booksellers got together to talk about the current state of affairs in the world of digital publishing. One of the hot topics of the day entailed libraries lending out digital books and how it effects bookstores. Waterstones m.d. James Daunt said that library e-lending could be disruptive to brick-and-mortar booksellers. “If you can download a book for free and read it, why would you want to own it?”

The essence of this issue is if digital lending from libraries actually hurts online bookstores? Obviously libraries have been lending out physical books for hundreds of years but the digital frontier is evolving dramatically and many online retailers are struggling to adapt. If people can just borrow books for free, what incentive do they have to purchase it?

My opinion is people with lower incomes traditionally are the ones that patronize libraries in the digital realm. Tangible libraries in small towns have more functions than just lending books, but they also provide parents with an easy way to get their kids out of the home and discovering the love of reading. It also functions as a study hall for students to all get together and work on group projects. I would say that libraries that lend out digital books do not directly hinder online retailers that sell the books, because they are not in the position to buy them anyways.

I don’t think its fair to blame libraries for devaluing books by lending them out for free. This is actually the main reason why many publishers pulled out of doing business with Overdrive. Many bigwigs are of the belief that if you give it away for free it really makes the item worthless. I think people are looking to deflect the blame from their existing business model that often becomes irrelevant fairly quickly, due to the dramatic shifting landscape of digital books and online retailing.

Michael Kozlowski (5209 Posts)

Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about electronic readers and technology for the last four years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the Huffington Post, CNET and more. Michael frequently travels to international events such as IFA, Computex, CES, Book Expo and a myriad of others. If you have any questions about any of his articles, please send an email to

  • Marianne Judy

     I work in a library that lends ebooks and audio books through Overdrive.  The ebooks and audio books both expire after their due date and cannot be opened. So, the reason for buying an ebook even if it’s available to borrow from the library is the same reason you would want to buy a print book rather than check it out–you want to re-read it or you want to have your copy–whether physically on the bookshelf in  your home or on the shelf of your ereader.  Just like print books, the books are licensed to only be shared with one patron at a time–I’m on waiting lists right now for audio books I want to borrow. I don’t see how loaning a book will hurt the sales–in fact, it could help them. If it’s a book I want to read badly enough, I won’t wait through everyone else who wants to borrow it–I’ll go buy it. Just like a print book.

  • Crazyheart

    I try before I buy.  Always have.  There’s only so much money in my entertainment budget, so I try to spend it wisely.  If I can’t try out a new author or series in the library first, I don’t commit myself to buying the works in case they aren’t my cup of tea.  So publishers who don’t sell to libraries lose my business.

  • Patti

    owe the publishers who have severed their ties with libraries a bit of
    gratitude. Since I won’t buy from publishers who refuse to support
    libraries, I’ve discovered some small presses that I might otherwise
    never have tried. It turns out that Joe
    Konrath both writes and publishes some highly entertaining reads in the
    mystery and horror genres, at much lower prices. Sourcebooks gives me a
    terrific historical fiction selection. Open Road is bringing back
    modern classics at very reasonable prices. There’s little need to do
    business with the big houses such as Macmillan, Penguin, S&S, etc.
    So a backhanded thanks for saving me money and giving me the nudge to
    try unfamiliar publishers who provide great value!

  • Aboutread

    People buy books for different reasons. And the reason that you can not borrow eBook from library is not the reason they need to buy it in most cases.