The New York Public Library is one of the most successful branches in the USA and it has been one of the first to adopt a cohesive digital strategy. The library system has been distributing ebooks via Overdrive since 2004 and recently started doing business with the 3M Cloud Library. During the last few months, Penguin and Simon & Shuster have both launched their first US pilot projects at the New York Public Library. How does the library secure the rights to participate in the pilot and how do the underlying semantics work?
To answer this question, we caught up with Christopher Platt, the Director of Collection & Circulation Operations at NYPL. He mentioned that publishers often choose his library because of the sheer amount of visibility and internet ebook loans they get. The library saw over 753,000 loans in one calendar year just for trade-fiction, which was a huge jump from 173,000 three years ago. Overall lending in one year toppled 28,000,000 digital books, audiobooks, movies, physical books and music files.
One of the big reasons why Penguin and Simon & Shuster do business with the New York Public Library is because of the data the library receives. Chris said, “When you don’t pay attention to public libraries, you lose a large amount of data. Publishers aren’t being exposed to that reader’s behavior. Libraries aggregate data all over the place, funding agencies, government, and annual reports. There is big value in sharing data with publisher, but remember, no private information is given out.” He went on to elaborate, “For Penguin, we give them the circulation information and then they can compare it to the sales data.”
One of the drawbacks in participating in so many pilot projects is inevitably you will have to do more business with digital content distribution systems. Overdrive has been one of the most longstanding primer partners, but the company tends to ruffle publishers’ feathers by loaning out the library ebooks to Kindle e-Readers. This has promoted the NYPL to do also do business with the 3M Cloud Library System. This means there are now two completely different content systems being used to facilitate ebooks from many different publishers.
Obviously, it can get quite confusing with two massive systems, but Chris and his team manage the situation quite well. Chris told me “We used the Penguin pilot as a new competitor to Overdrive. We are making sure that we’re not overlapping content dealing with many different companies, keeping both separate, if we have a title in Overdrive, we are not buying it from 3M.”
One of the things Chris wants to develop is a new library checkout method that won’t take library patrons away from the main library’s website. As it stands, when you do business with Overdrive, you begin at your main library’s website, and then you are redirected to the Overdrive’s checkout portal, which creates confusion in the whole process. Chris told me that he wants to eventually streamline the entire process, so it’s easier and more intuitive. Chris and his team will most likely employ the new Overdrive API system that allows technical teams to do just that.
Running the most visited cultural institution in New York can can be quite taxing on the budget. Chris would not talk specific numbers, but 7% of the total money available is used to procure ebooks. The library has also been hit hard by budget constraints due to a rough patch in the American economy. This means the overall pool of financial resources is lower now than what it was five years ago. One of the ways the NY library offsets costs is by buying the ebook but not the physical book, to prevent duplications in the system. Chris mentioned, “With the new pilots projects by Penguin, Hachette, and Simon and Shuster, it is a very heavy drain on our materials budget for next year. We want to be careful around the system, because of the prices changing with the amount of loans.”
Penguin and the New York Public Library are not only running a pilot project, in which all front and back-list titles are available, but it is also experimenting with sales. If you consider the new Dan Brown book coming out in a few weeks, there are already 500 people on the waiting list. Your average patron might have to wait months to read the digital editions. To offset this, NYPL will be introducing BUY IT NOW links that will allow customers to buy the book from their favorite ebook store and the library will see a small royalty in return. Chris made it very clear that this program “is not looking to disrupt the traditional bookstore experience. It’s about giving our patrons more freedoms.”
One thing Chris and I agreed on was that every big six publishing company had different terms on selling their ebooks to the libraries. Some had increased the digital cost by over 300%, while others have adopted a 26 limit checkout before needing to purchase the book again. Still others have different pricing structures and different terms. Chris thinks “this whole situation will iron itself out in due time, as libraries start to work with publishers more directly.”
My take is that when the Justice Department came down hard on all of the big six publishers, it has soured them on defining a comprehensive library strategy. They are all really scared to be talking to each other on the record because of the global collusion cases levied against them for establishing “Agency Pricing.” You basically have all six companies doing completely different things, with no consistency in terms and pricing. It is illegal for them to come together and try and figure this out, so it is basically up to the the big libraries and the American Library Association to liaison across the world of publishing.
The New York Public Library System has seen massive gains in its digital platforms, due to the new CEO Tony Marx who joined the system in 2011. Since then, he instilled the belief that you should devise systems and plan for five to ten years from now, but also two years from now. He has been a driving force in getting these publishers to deal with this library in these pilot projects and giving them all the big data they need to gauge if it’s a success. Obviously, this approach worked, and after a few short months Penguin got out of the trial and decided to loan out their entire catalog of books in every library in the USA.
In the end, the digital future looks bright for the New York Public Library with Chris and Tony spearheading the digital initiatives. Soon the vast majority of ebooks will be available in the USA, Canada, and other major markets. If it wasn’t for hard work and the love of reading, likely the entire industry would see a major setback and we would still be wondering why the major publishers aren’t loaning their books out. Also, a special tip of the hat to the president of the American Library Association Maureen Sullivan for her tireless efforts.
Michael Kozlowski has written about audiobooks and e-readers for the past twelve years. Newspapers and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times have picked up his articles. He Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.