Jamie LaRue, the director of the Douglas County Libraries (DCL) in Colorado, is not waiting for an ebook business model conducive to libraries to magically appear. Instead, LaRue and his staff have been methodically building their own model, and it has been attracting a growing number of publishers.
LaRue’s approach to ebooks is very recognizable: the library purchases the book outright, manages its circulation, and protects its intellectual content — exactly as libraries have done for years with print materials.
The library invested about $10,000 in an Adobe Content Server (ACS) earlier this year to host ebook files and manage digital rights (DRM), and LaRue began talking with the sales representatives from various publishers about selling — not leasing — their ebooks to the library. When the program launched in March, LaRue was hoping to have about 100 titles in the library’s collection by June; the number of titles is now approaching 7,000.
LaRue has so far struck deals with the Colorado Independent Publishers Association, the Independent Publishers Group (which signed on this week), Marshall Cavendish Corporation, Gale Cengage Learning, Lerner Publishing Group, and ABDO Publishing Group, and other negotiations are ongoing.
“We’ve contacted a lot of publishers, including a couple of the Big Six,” LaRue said. “Their reaction — HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — has been cautious interest. Will they sell directly to DCL? Not yet. They’re not really set up to sell directly to individual libraries, they say, although it’s probably a lot like providing a file to Overdrive or 3M. But if other libraries team up with us, reproduce the setup? Maybe they will. They’re watching us,” he said.
A key factor in getting participating publishers to sell the ebook files has been assuring them that the library’s platform is secure.
“The heart of the issue for us was confidence in the DRM at Douglas County. We were able to satisfy ourselves about this,” said Richard Farley, the president of Marshall Cavendish. (Amazon Publishing today acquired Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books).
Dan Wallek, the senior director for digital product management at Lerner, said the request from Douglas County to host publisher ebook files was unique, and he and his sales representative had conference calls with LaRue to clarify the library’s needs and to reassure themselves that the technology in place in Douglas County would protect Lerner’s business model.
“As with many publishers, Lerner Publishing Group is certainly concerned with the piracy of our intellectual property,” Wallek said. “We made sure there was a clear understanding on our expectations in protecting our intellectual property in our agreement,” he said. “We reached an arrangement that worked for all of us.”
Paul Abdo, the editor-in-chief of Abdo Publishing Company, said he struggled with the decision but decided to participate because he wanted to get his company’s content into end-users hands electronically.
“This industry is moving or I should say has moved to digital content. I believe publishers must move forward,” Abdo said. “I also believe after working out the agreement with Douglas County that they are going to do everything possible to keep our content secure. Are there risks? Of course – but I truly believe they are quite minimal – at least with regards to the system Douglas County has implemented,” he said. “If the security is there then I don’t understand why a publisher wouldn’t allow it.”
The library has been tweaking its platform so that it can scale up the operation with confidence. There has been one big issue.
“While it has been easy enough to integrate the open source Vufind and the proprietary Adobe Content Server, it’s been harder to program the interface between Vufind and our ILS,” LaRue said.
The solution, LaRue said, was to sidestep the ILS entirely. The library’s econtent is now managed entirely through a combination of Vufind, SOLR full text indexing, a MySQL database for ‘free’content, and ACS for DRM content.
The library has spent about $65,000 on programmer time so far to get things working seamlessly. Library users can read ebooks through a browser on a private library-hosted cloud, or through any device capable of reading DRM-protected files.
“Separating the platform from our ILS, of course, means that it has suddenly become far more replicable,” LaRue said. “We do need other libraries to adopt something like this if we’re going to succeed in getting the Big Six to sell to us,” he said.
LaRue said the Big Six should participate.
“They sell books, we buy books, we use industry standard copy protection, and we’ll help people find and even buy these titles. Why not?” he said.
From October 30 to November 30, LaRue noted that the library’s “click throughs” to purchase titles in the collection tallied 8,404 for Amazon, 4,393 for Tattered Cover, 19 for Smashwords and four for Barnes&Noble.
“I can understand why publishers wouldn’t want, as a business proposition, to have to supply all libraries separately. Traditionally, they want a distributor to handle all that,” LaRue said. “But we don’t have any distributors who know how to sell a file to us. That might be a business opportunity for someone,” he said.
Although LaRue said the piracy concerns of the Big Six was a “red herring,” Farley, from Marshall Cavendish, said the situation of the Big Six was not quite the same as his company’s.
“I think that piracy is a concern for all publishers but probably more so for a trade house rather than an educational publisher such as Marshall Cavendish,” Farley said. “The risks of unauthorized distribution are greater for them simply because of the greater demand in sheer numbers for what they publish,” he said.
The authors at Abdo Publishing are paid a flat rate per book so no royalties are involved, which, in the end, makes it easier to make these kind of deals, according to Paul Abdo.
“It could be a big reason why the Big Six are having issues because an author being paid a royalty has a lot more to gain and lose from this,” he said. “I sometimes wonder if it is less to do with security with the Big Six and more to do with royalties and costs.”
Big Six publishers contacted for this story declined to comment. The Big Six publishers are Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, MacMillan Publishers, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster. Only Random House does not restrict in some way library ebook lending.
Douglas County has budgeted $1 million for econtent in FY12, and LaRue is setting aside another couple hundred thousand dollars for further programming.
“We prefer to buy and own at a discount; what we can’t buy that way we prefer to acquire through 3M, because their contract specifies that it’s ours,” LaRue said, echoing an position being taken by the Kansas State Library. 3M allows libraries, with publisher permission, to transfer ebooks to another provider’s platform, which, in this case, could be the library’s own platform.
The library staff is discussing how best to approach the collection’s development in this “time of experimentation,” LaRue said.
“But I hope publishers understand something: the more limitations they place on these purchases — renting instead of purchasing, the elimination of discounts, the delay of availability to libraries — the more we will seek publishers who don’t impose such restrictions,” LaRue said. “There are a lot of publishers out there who are eager to sell to us.”
But the cost and expertise involved in the project can present a hurdle, according to C. Daniel Miller, the president of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association, who said his organization’s partnership with the library has been “great.”
“In the case of DCL, they acquired the software, the server capacity, and the technical staff to apply DRM themselves,” Miller said. “The vast majority of library districts will not likely be able to accomplish this. The next phase of the library ebook partnership will be exploring ways to overcome this obstacle,” he said.