If you can’t find the right library e-books for your new Kindle, Nook, iPad or other gizmo, you’re not alone.

More than 100 patrons of the District of Columbia Public Library were lined up electronically today for 10 e-book copies of The Racketeer, John Grisham’s new novel about the murder of a federal judge. Some 400+ D.C. library users awaited 60 electronic copies of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the best-selling fiction title on the New York Times list. And a digital version of The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, was not even in the catalog of the D.C. public library system.

Could a well-stocked national digital library system—in fact, two of them—one public, one academic—be a solution for Washingtonians and others?

My political opposite, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote two “On the Right” columns in favor of the idea in the 1990s. President Obama and Congress should catch up with WFB. I myself have been on the case for the past two decades.

The national digital library issue (a K-12, jobs and poverty issue in disguise), merits at least a brief mention—and ideally more—in the State of the Union address. No question about the need. Washington library patrons are hardly alone in their plight, as shown by similar statistics from some other major library systems and by recent coverage on National Public Radio, where, among other things, you’ll find that Random House can charge a library $100 to license a new e-copy (see Library Journal for more details).

At the same time, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project says that “in the past year the number of those who read e-books increased from 16 percent of all Americans ages 16 and older to 23 percent.” Coincidentally or not, Pew says “the number of those who read printed books in the previous 12 months fell from 72 percent of the population ages 16 and older to 67 percent.”

The e-library issue goes far beyond bestsellers and other entertainment. A relationship exists between children’s academic achievements and the number of books they can enjoy at home, and potentially e-books could be huge encouragers of family literacy. One of the best ways to get students reading is for their mothers and fathers to act as role models, even if parents’ books are about their own diverse interests rather than their children’s. (Yes, more e-books of appeal to low-income people and members of minorities would help.)

With colorful pop-up art and other treats, paper books can be a great way to turn toddlers—in time—into readers. But when it comes to slashing costs and increasing availability of titles matching K-12 students’ precise interests, nothing beats the possibilities of e-books. The technology is only going to get cheaper and better, as shown by Worldreader‘s successful use of Kindle E Ink machines in schools in sub-Saharan Africa (above image). Kindles once were $399 luxuries. Now they go for as little as $69 retail.

Publishing is a conservative industry, and many tradition-bound publishers still don’t understand that e-books can make public libraries far more of a financial opportunity. An analyst for Bernstein Research has determined that 40 percent of Americans lack disposable income after paying for necessities. We need as many books as possible to be free, or at least irresistibly affordable. Current business models for book publishers deserve reexamination. Of the $2,700 that the average American household spends annually on entertainment, according to Department of Labor statistics reproduced by Visual Economics, just $118 goes for books and other reading. That’s a disgraceful .2 percent of “U.S. Consumer Unit Expenditures,” excluding taxes. Ever-more restrictive copyright laws and stricter technical controls on e-book use—when even now there’s no guarantee you can pass on your digital books to your children—definitely would backfire and make books less competitive against movies and computer games.

Society and the industry alike need a new and better approach, then, especially with so many publishers under siege. Hello, former Congressman Tom Allen (president and CEO at the Association of American Publishers and an ex-Rhodes Scholar, as well as a Harvard Law graduate)? Maybe your New Year’s resolution should be to convince publishers to spend a little less time on copyright fights with libraries, and a lot more time working with them toward well-funded national digital libraries, with, of course, fair compensation for writers, publishers and other professional content creators. Ideally the military-industrial complex will inspire the creation of a publisher-library complex.

Allen’s bio page on the site mentions the AAP’s mission as “protecting copyright” and helping publishers “meet 21st-century challenges.” But regardless of copyright’s importance—I, too, am a believer—might not the second mission count even more?

Does the AAP care more about publisher-perfect copyright law, or the prosperity of its members? And what about Allen’s description of himself as “passionate about books and reading my whole life”? A publisher-library complex—and, yes, I would expect compromise from the library community, too—would not only enrich his members but also help him Share the Love.

Some related ideas:

♦ No, as literacy promoters, e-books can’t replace parents, teachers, librarians and brick-and-mortar libraries. Libraries are community centers and are about a lot more than simply books per se. Nothing beats humans as sources of inspiration and raisers of expectations (PDF); parent-to-child reading is the ultimate social medium. Family literacy programs should not only teach reading, but also offer very specific tips to receptive mothers and fathers on how to encourage it.

♦ Public libraries will never be able to immediately lend every book for free—bestsellers included—without at least some patrons suffering waiting periods. But libraries can experiment with different business models offering different options for patrons (same for arrangements with publishers) and even blend their own Netflix-style service into their catalogs, as well as offer links to commercial booksellers and renters. I’m not worried about public libraries driving commercial rental operations out of business. The priorities will always be different, with the eyes of Jeff Bezos and friends strictly on the bottom line.

♦ Via the national digital public library system, public libraries could also offer locally branded electronic lockers from which patrons could forever be able to download even copy-“protected” books they had bought commercially. Thanks to changing forms of Digital Rights Management, I can no longer read certain e-books bought from Fictionwise, an independent e-bookstore gobbled up by Barnes & Noble. Amazon stranded some customers years ago when it backed off from the PDF format. The best DRM is none, of course, as I see it as both a writer and book-lover, but I’m a realist and also understand how libraries use it on loaned books to enforce expirations. One compromise option for consumer-owned books might be social DRM, a form of digital watermarking, which doesn’t suffer the same tech-related incompatibilities as genuine DRM does. DRM systems actually drive some customers to download pirated e-books without onerous usage restrictions, and they can interfere with special accessibility measures for people with disabilities.

♦ Both public and academic digital library systems could share a common technological infrastructure to store e-books and help make them accessible, and a good shortcut would be the purchase of OverDrive, the world’s largest supplier of e-books to public libraries (details of the proposal here and here). The Digital Public Library of America, originated at Harvard Law School, Allen’s alma mater, could work with OverDrive’s existing people on new business models, while taking care not to unnecessarily alienate publishers. Teaming up with the others could be tech-hip public librarians such as those within the Douglas County, Colorado, system. As for access issues, the smartest response would be to work to close the digital divide, not hobble public libraries with an insistence that most everything be on paper.

♦ Financing of the OverDrive takeover and more could come at least partly from philanthropists such as the Buffett family and maybe even—the choice is his—from the Washington area’s own David Rubenstein. Don’t count on Warren Buffett’s friend Bill Gates, to whom Buffett has farmed out so much of his philanthropy. Gates’ efforts to wire up libraries and schools, as well as his public health campaigns, have enriched the world. But for some reason, Bill Gates so far has refused to give away content in a meaningful way, perhaps because he still chairs Microsoft and owns 100 percent of the separate Corbis image collection. I might as well be suggesting that Andrew Carnegie donate steel. Ideally Gates will recognize Corbis as a means, not an end, and donate at least some of its holdings (just as I would recommend that Rubenstein buy some images for the public domain from Getty Images, now owned by the Rubenstein-founded Carlyle Group). Similarly, how about about efforts to donate still-under-copyright masterpieces, like The Great Gatsby, a personal favorite of his, to the public domain? If Gates keeps refusing—no known action so far on the Gatsby suggestion, made during the 1990s—this is one more indication of the need for the Buffett family, Rubenstein and others to step up to the plate. Let’s hope that Gates and his people will reconsider, and, in fact, a recent survey from the Gates Foundation gives me the impression that the foundation is rethinking the library-related components of its mission.

Even the best-stocked national digital library systems aren’t necessarily going to propel you to the top of the list for a free loan of the latest Grisham. But whether the cause is education, family literacy, or preservation of books as an important medium in our culture, digital libraries could be a life-improver for many, and help ailing publishers along the way.

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  1. Well stated and well thought out! There is a lot of unsettled business in the publishing arena that needs to be addressed. The technology is changing and the publishing industry is behind the curve, rather than in front of it. Now is the time for meaningful change to prevent books from becoming inaccessible to the masses. Our citizens need to be literate to compete in a global economy. At the very least, they need to be literate to engage in thoughtful discourse. Thank you for an insightful look at the industry.

  2. In a book-centric discussion of the role of libraries, public and academic, it is useful to mention un-popular books. Publishers and authors need revenue buffers for popular titles and library circulation constraints are helpful there.

    But most books in library collections are less than wildly popular. In-fact un-popular and more specialized books predominate. Maintaining those collections of low circulation titles is an important service not just to library patrons but also to publishers and authors. Public and research libraries are bookstores for these sleepers and the libraries absorb the overhead of reference and bibliographic utility services required to encourage this customer base. Publishers and authors and associated production economies need only await recognition and sales, both print and screen, that un-popular book research provokes.

  3. Hi, Gary. I emphatically agree that libraries are good for unpopular books, and that’s one of many excellent reasons for looking beyond the current business models. Consider Kafka’s initial popularity or lack thereof. Even Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby were out of fashion for many years after his death.

    Furthermore, libraries can endlessly expand digital shelves, and improved discovery tools unique to online media can help even more.

    While digital shelves and the just-mentioned tools aren’t just for libraries, they’re more trustworthy than alternatives even though (in the interest of content diversity and freedom of expression) I don’t want them to be the only model.

    > Publishers and authors need revenue buffers for popular titles and library circulation constraints are helpful there.

    If people insist on instant access to huge bestsellers, then integrated rental services could be the answer, as mentioned (with subsidies for low-income people). Once again, here’s to a variety of business models!


  4. Unfortunately, technology can do little to change cultures. That has to come from inside.

    * Years ago, I lived in a part of Seattle where the local public library was always crowded. It had the highest checkout rate in Seattle, so much so that a librarian there told me that over half its books were checked out at any one time.

    * In Washington, D.C. for a summer, the closest library to where I lived was bulging with unchecked-out books. Even on blazing hot, humid days when the library would have been a good escape from the heat, I was often the only patron.

    The difference? That Seattle neighborhood was heavily Jewish, with two synagogues within a block of the library. The DC neighborhood where I lived was just outside the spreading gentrification and mostly black.

    One culture valued books and taught that to their children. The other didn’t. Those were the facts.

    And yes, history is a factor. It’s depressing to read accounts from just after the Civil War of the zeal that many newly freed slaves had to learn to read, typically taught by religious women from New England, and to realize that was destroyed when the Democrats returned to power in the post-Reconstruction South, making it impossible for those brave teachers to remain.

    But while history can remake a culture for ill, once those changes become embedded into a culture, only the people themselves can undo the harm. Governments can keep an eager-to-learn people from getting an education and reading for long enough that they lose all desire. Governments are far less successful at imparting an eagerness to read to those who attach no value to it.

    Politics makes matters worse rather than better. When politicians, eager to do anything to get reelected, bow to teachers unions and don’t allow incompetent, unmotivated teachers to be fired, any role that a good teacher might play is nullified.

    Faced with a teacher culture that just wants to get by and a student culture that doesn’t value reading or education, the good teachers migrate to suburban schools where the situation isn’t so depressingly hopeless. Good teachers attract other good teachers. Mildly motivated middle-class students, taught by good teachers, become more motivated. Good gets better (or at least no worse). Bad gets worse. And it all traces back to politicians bowing to teachers unions.

    It’s also hard to come up with government programs that make unmotivated teachers better. Years ago I had a friend who, after a divorce, went back to school and became a teacher. Frustrated that she seemed to know more about fashionable teaching methods than what she was teaching, I tried to get her to take summer programs in actual subjects. The state of Washington had programs to fund that. But the attitude in the teaching community, as she told it to me, was to use the money to take some easy ed-school course. Anything else would require work and study, cutting down on the summer play time teachers value so highly. How do you fix that sort of ‘don’t try’ attitude with government money?

    That summer in DC I did meet one dear-hearted elderly black woman who was trying to interest young blacks in Shakespeare. Unfortunately, she seemed to be going about it all wrong. “Read Shakespeare,” she told me she was telling them, “there’s a lot about sex there.” Hey, I felt like telling her, with teen birthrates in the 70% range, these kids already think enough about that. They need to be told to read Shakespeare for the other things he writes about.

    In the end, the difference lies in the distinction between a victim culture and a victor culture.

    * A victim culture whines and complains, seeing all its problems as flowing from others, who it expects to change. We don’t read, those who are victims say, because our great-times-five ancestors were kept from learning to read by their slave owners. Give us compensation for slavey. Let us into schools where we’re less qualified than those being turned down. Etc. etc. etc. All things that others must do. Victims are always being acted upon.

    * A victor culture sees change as its responsibility. Arriving poor and often badly educated immigrants, the Jews from Eastern Europe circa 1900 taught their children to e study and get just as much education as they could. And succeed they did. By the 1920s, the country’s top schools were having to set quotas to keep their kids out.

    Race really isn’t the primary issue. In the South where I grew up in the 1950s, whites whined constantly and played the victim, blaming Yankees and others (carpetbaggers and scalawags) for all their ills. The result was a chronically morbid economy. Race was simply the excuse they used to avoid facing the fact that their ‘blame others’ attitude made them their own worst enemies. You can see that in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the mid-1930s.

    For blacks, matters went sour in the late 1960s, when LBJ, who as a congressman had fought hard for decades to defend white supremacy, saw that all was over for using white victimization to win elections for his party. So he flipped the scales. Now blacks were to become the official victims and thus dependent on government to protect their special victim status. A better name for his Great Society might be the Great Whine.

    The result is the same as in the segregated South for whites, the constant whining of victims and a lack of interest in the sorts of things that will get you ahead: work, education, and risk taking. And getting over that sort of thing is why the economy of the South has begun to improve.

    No, government ereader/ebook programs will do little. You can buy a Kindle for less than many inner city boys spend on a single pair of shoes. You can load it up for free with excellent public domain books from Amazon or Project Gutenberg. The means is there. What is lacking is the will in a culture that overvalues pricey shoes and undervalues books.

    And a dysfunctional cultures only change when those in them force change, particularly in their expectations for their children. It certainly isn’t changed by self-interested politicians such as LBJ or his modern counterparts.

  5. OMG, people have to wait for a free popular book and suffer from the trauma of not getting instant gratification. Let’s destroy copyright and publishing instantly to fix it!

    Recently, I waited three months for the newest Dean Koontz ODD THOMAS novel from my library’s digital consortium. Sure, it was a long wait, but the cost of free is time, and I was willing to pay it. I also bought Jim Butcher’s newest “Dresden Files” because I didn’t want to wait months.

    If you aren’t willing to pay time for free, then you should ask your local government to put more money into your library, join the local friends of the library association and help raise funds for more books, and get your library to cut the loan time in half so the book will be returned faster.

    David, your “solution” is to make all books available for free instantly through a library makes no financial sense for publishing. Why would anyone buy a book when they can get the same book for free instantly? Why would a publisher stay in business to sell a few copies of a book to a couple of libraries who can then loan it out to millions of people instantly? Why would a writer spend many hours over years writing a book for less money than they’d make in a week at minimum wage?

    How would destroying the financial structure of publishing and all hope of profit for writers help the poor, children, and those to freaking cheap to spend a few bucks on a book?

    That’s like the old saying about eating all the seed corn when you are hungry without thought that you will have nothing to plant later.

  6. Until a more reliable system is put into place, a library can only lend as many ebook copies as they have purchased. Anything else would be unfair to the author.

    Traditionally, libraries could only lend out the physical books that were in their possession. Until something is in place to allow for compensation to the author each time that a book is lent, libraries will be limited. I think that the cost of many ebooks is way out of line right now and that is a factor in the number of copies that are owned by the libraries. I recently looked up a popular writer’s latest novel. It was $12.95 for a Kindle version. I tend to support Indie writers for that very reason.

  7. Always thoughtful and thought-provoking, David. From a publisher standpoint, the fundamental issue is that a library that can offer unlimited books on-line to readers who don’t have to visit is a bookstore. As you point out, there needs to be a business model to allow publishers (and self-publishers) to recover our costs. As we’ve seen in Washington recently, tax dollars are hard to come by. Things get even trickier as some libraries engage in non-free activities (my former library in Dallas initiated a program that let people pay for premium access to new books). I, along with, I think, most authors and publishers, am a true believer in libraries. In my teen years, the library was my escape… in both a physical and intellectual sense.

    So, yes, I think there need to be libraries. I think libraries should support Project Gutenberg to make sure that every reader can get public domain books easily and free. I also think that each time a new, still in copyright, book is checked out, there should be a payment made to the rights-holder (this is done in England, for example). I’d certainly offer my books free of up-front charges in exchange for a modest payment per use. With today’s technology, we might even be able to alter that payment based on whether the book was fully read or returned only partially consumed.

    Your statistic on how entertainment dollars are spent is discouraging but not surprising. On a dollar per hour of entertainment, books are a bargain… yet still, many people don’t read. We need libraries to encourage the next generation of readers, but we also need to recognize that turning libraries into free versions of the Kindle or Nook store does have consequences.

    Rob Preece

  8. Yes, Marilyn, what makes best financial sense for the publishing industry should be the ONLY thing that we consider when it comes to public access to books at libraries.

    Yes, yes, let’s raise more money for libraries so they can multiple copies of books that are in high demand for a short time. Of course, all the joys of restrictive digital copyright will still apply and the libraries won’t be able to re-sell those copies when demand drops.

    We are morphing into the Corporate States Of America. All hail to the divine right of corporations to maximize their profits. No solutions allowed for libraries that wish to get more digital reading material into the hands of more readers unless it leads to buckets of lucre for the big publishers.

  9. @Everyone: Thanks for your interest in a solution to the e-book
    crunch, based on my two decades of evolving thought on business models
    for e-libraries. I hope that skeptics will carefully read the
    paragraph below.

    @Marilynn: Please take another look. My commentary explicitly calls
    for America to spend much MORE on content, with far more reliance on
    the library model–and more money for libraries, aided by publishers
    pushing in the same direction. On top of that, I warn: “Even the
    best-stocked national digital library systems aren’t necessarily going
    to propel you to the top of the list for a free loan of the latest
    Grisham.” What I do propose for the impatient is a Netflix-style
    rental service well-integrated with the national digital library
    system running it; library patrons would pay monthly or yearly fees,
    and publishers and authors would get their shares of this revenue,
    with popularity as the main criterion (even though there still could
    be other models for, say, valuable academic writings of inherently
    limited demand). I certainly would want fair compensation for content
    providers whether people enjoyed the e-books through the regular
    library system or the express rental service or a variant, such as a
    book-specific fee to avoid a wait (not the same as buying the book
    since friction could still exist via a limited borrowing period–maybe
    very very limited in the case of the biggest bestsellers unless the
    fee were greater than otherwise).

    @StaHi: If libraries have bought more than one copy (or the electronic
    equivalent of multiple copies), then each woud be treated like a paper
    copy–e.g., two books would mean two simultaneous checkouts allowed.
    That appears to be the main model for OverDrive, and I myself can
    appreciate the logic. The problem arises when many patrons are waiting
    for just a limited number of copies. If we do away with the paper
    analogy, then, as my response to Marilyn would suggest, we need to
    compensate writers and publishers accordingly so they don’t lose out. We
    must be fair to content providers!

    @Michael: While I don’t agree with every syllable you’ve written, I
    most emphatically think you’re right in saying that it isn’t enough
    just to get the books out there. Here’s to family literacy programs
    and other efforts that among other things will encourage parents to
    raise both their children’s expectations and their own.

    @Binko: I appreciate your pro-library sentiments. At the same time
    I recognize publishers’ need to make money money off the minority of
    books that do hit it big, which is why libraries and publishers could
    try a number of different business models, such as payment by the
    number of accesses (variants of which are in use already, though not
    necessarily on the most library-friendly terms).

    Happy New Year,

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