February 7, 2023

Freading, the Ebook Sibling of Freegal, Shows Signs of Rapid Growth


(Library Journal is presenting a series of articles that takes an indepth look at some of the ebook platforms that are now in the marketplace. The first in the series looked at  Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360. This story examines Library Ideas’ Freading service. Upcoming stories will look at Ebooks on EBSCOhost, Ingram’s MyiLibrary, and ProQuest’s ebrary.)

The Freading ebook platform from Library Ideas went live at the end of December 2011, and 143 library systems have signed up as of March 28, according to company figures.

The rate of growth is greater than Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 platform or 3M’s beta Cloud Library, and when combined with Freegal, the company’s well-established music platform, Library Ideas, in some places, is generating more downloads in all formats than even OverDrive.

Freading has a $150 startup fee. There are no other fees. If a library already has Freegal, there is no charge to add Freading.

Once a library signs up, it gains access to just over 20,000 ebooks, which multiple users can read simultaneously on a pay-per-download basis.

These features have proven attractive.

Access model avoids holds
“We have access to way more titles than we could have afforded to purchase. I think it’s very egalitarian,” said Lesley D. Boughton, the Wyoming state librarian, who began offering Freading statewide on February 13. “And I don’t know why we have to impose old models of library lending when technology allows us to make multi-user, simultaneous lending,” she said.

For the $150 startup fee, Wyoming’s 23 public libraries, the University of Wyoming, seven community colleges, and all the state’s school and special libraries gained access to Freading’s collection (the state counts as one customer). Boughton has budgeted $40,000 for downloads.

“The idea that everybody can be downloading the same book at the same time and that you have the entire inventory to offer to your patrons, rather than selecting and guessing at what they’re going to want, are both extremely attractive,” said Maxine Bleiweis, director of the Westport Public Library in Connecticut, which was a beta partner and went live with the service in January.

Freading is not the only service to offer public libraries a ready-made collection with this access model. For example,  ebrary’s Public Library Complete also offers simultaneous, multi-user access to a collection of about 27,000 titles, but the ebrary offering is an annual subscription service based on population served. OverDrive’s Max Access program offers a limited amount of ebooks with this access model.

Regardless, the model avoids holds and that is a big attraction. Peter Schoenberg, the director of the eServices Division of the Edmonton Public Library, said that around Christmas 73 percent of the library’s OverDrive collection had been checked out.

“A customer gets a new ereader and they come in to the library and find only one in four titles available to them,” Schoenberg said. “So the key thing for us was the unlimited simultaneous use of titles, which limits holds,” he said.

The value proposition
Such issues were what led Brian Downing, who co-founded Library Ideas with David Berset and Jim Petersen in 2008, to see an opportunity for the company, which is based in Fairfax, VA, and employs about 20 people.

“Freading came about because the existing supply chain did not adequately address the needs of all the interested parties: publishers, libraries, and patrons,” Downing said.

Downing summarized the company’s ebook value proposition in three points:

  • A publisher acquires a new recurring revenue stream that maximizes the value of their content;
  • A library expands its ebook collection by 20,000 titles and “any money they spend is on a transaction that is delivered to the customer”;
  • A patron avoids hold lists and bewildering technology.

“For libraries that have OverDrive, it’s a supplement, at least in the beginning,” Downing said. “We’re positioning it as ‘look you have 8,000 ebooks, 1,000 of them are available, now you can 21,000 available all the time when you sign up with us,’ ” he said.

“Libraries are responding to our model because they just can’t afford to meet demand under the present situation,” Downing said. “Our business models are innovative, and that causes a lot of discussion, but I think the story is that 2,000 libraries have our products [Freegal, Freading, Rocket Languages] and this looks to be just as popular,” he said.

Paying per download
Freading’s pay-per-download model works like this:

A library either pre-pays for a pool of tokens at 50 cents apiece, or is billed monthly after the fact. Tokens are allotted each week to patrons (4 or 5 tokens a week is typical). A book published less than six months ago cost four tokens ($2) to download; a book between seven months and two years old costs two tokens ($1); a book older than two years costs one token ($0.50). The patron selects a book and its token value is subtracted from the patron’s weekly allotment at the time of the download.

Sue Polanka, the head of reference for Wright State University’s Dunbar Library who blogs at No Shelf Required, said Freading’s low fees and the access model were attractive, but budgeting tokens could be a challenge.

“The model will be difficult for libraries to budget. It’s possible that funds could be expended in the first few weeks of the service if the library underestimated the demand or if the budget isn’t managed well,” she said.

Librarians using the system, however, said they were comfortable with the controls in place that allow them to throttle usage, even if they might need some time to judge the ideal budget amount

At the LE Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire, WI, the largest library in the western half of the state, Freading had 369 unique users between January 3 and March 25.  Those patrons used 2207 tokens to download 1267 ebooks (an average of 1.7 tokens per book).

“The token system is working all right for us,” said John Stoneberg, the director, who added that he liked that the books were always available and easy to download. “I think we are on target to hit the $7,000 to $10,000 we are planning on for the year,” he said.

With Freading, the patrons’ tokens roll over each week, but on the first of the month the total reverts to the default amount. The library does not have to use the tokens it has purchased within any set time. When the tokens run out, the library decides whether to replenish the supply and how much they want to spend.

The loan period is two weeks and a new book can be renewed for one token and there is no charge to renew older books.

But the token system was an issue for some librarians.

“It’s an interesting model and it’s something that I think is worth considering, but I don’t know that it’s going to be what we’re looking for,” said Sarah Beasley, the eresources coordinator for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, who was looking at Freading during the Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia last month.

“My concern is the token system is a little confusing and complicated. It’s not as straightforward as here’s the book I want and now I can get it,” she said.

Boughton, the Wyoming state librarian, and Stoneberg, the director in Eau Claire, both said the token system was not an issue and that patrons learned it easily. But one of the reasons the Nashville Public Library decided not to go with Freading was the token system.

“The whole system was too confusing on the customer side of things,” said Noel Rutherford, Nashville’s collection development and acquisitions manager. Nashville does use the Freegal Music service, which Rutherford said “worked beautifully.” Downing noted that Freegal has employed a similar token system for three years.

Westport PL has prepared the video below to explain the model and illustrate the interface.

Quality of the collection
Part of Downing’s argument is that the model “makes sense all over the ecosystem,” particularly since publishers make money on every download. This is attractive for small or medium-sized publishers whose backlists may be languishing.

“It maximizes the individual value of the book, and it maximizes the long tail so it creates an ongoing revenue stream,” Downing said. He said that charging per download was ultimately how the movie and music companies adapted to the digital age.

The collection includes titles from about 60 publishers, and Downing said his goal is to increase the number of titles to 50,000 by the end of this year (including foreign language titles). Many small to mid-size publishers, such as Sterling, Kensington, Algonquin, Sourcebooks, Andrews McMeel, Regnery Publishing and others, are represented.

Dominique Raccah, the publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, agreed that it was important to find a viable library model that works for authors, publishers, and readers.

“We’re working with every viable library model we find, so the pay-per-download model wasn’t a key driver for us,” Raccah said. “We were a very early Overdrive partner. We were one of the first on the Freading platform. We have three other library model tests underway. We have always believed that libraries are an important channel to reach readers, and the Freading platform is an interesting variation on the classic library model that bears testing,” she said.

The collection is broken down into 49 categories, as can be seen on the Orange County Public Library’s site, and libraries can deselect categories such as erotica, if they choose.

“We have some great content, but more and better content, now that the technical launch is behind us, is our priority,” Downing said.

The collection does not contain any titles from the Big Six publishers, although Downing has had “productive” meetings with all of them. But he is not counting on them.

It’s not in our business plan that they will ever do business with us. If it happens, great,” Downing said, adding that getting content from the Big Six was a challenge for all ebook providers.

The absence of such content was a “big concern” for Schoenberg, the librarian in Edmonton.

“We’ve had the Freegal product for a while and that has grown dramatically, and we are hoping they can grow this as well. This model with a strong collection would be a powerful product,” he said.

The potential strength of the model, particularly when teamed with Freegal, was in evidence in Eau Claire. So far this year, Freading’s service is averaging about 422 ebook loans a month in Eau Claire. For January and February, its OverDrive service was averaging 1184 loans. But the Overdrive numbers show, above all, the impact of Kindle lending. If Kindle lending is factored out, OverDrive averaged 452 loans a month — about the same as Freading.

And if all formats are included (ebooks, audio, etc.) the February numbers show 1,775 downloads for OverDrive and 3,770 for Library Ideas (Freading plus Freegal Music).

Bleiweis, the director in Westport, was satisfied with the content on Freading.

“We are doing readers advisory on what there is in Freading’s collection that we think is really great and that we think our patrons want,” Bleiweis said. “There are some great mysteries and some good solid fiction from Algonquin,” she said.

The exposure of the entire Freading collection also allows the library to discover patrons’ interests at no charge until a book is actually downloaded.

“We don’t buy a lot of romance because we think that our customers probably don’t want it, but we also know that romance is the biggest downloaded genre there is,” Bleiweis said. “So, my guess is that we are going to make a lot of people happy that we weren’t making happy before,” she said.

OverDrive’s WIN catalog accomplishes a similar discovery goal by exposing OverDrive’s entire collection to patrons, including titles not in the library’s collection, which can be subsequently licensed if enough patrons show interest.

Bleiweis said the access model also lends itself well to the 60 book clubs that the library runs, and Boughton, in Wyoming, said the Freading collection was strong in westerns, cookbooks, and craft books, and patrons were “thrilled” to find all the Dilbert books being offered.

However, Henry Bankhead, the library manager for adult services at the Los Gatos Public Library in California, said the pay-per-use model raises other questions.

“It’s considered unsustainable by critics because the library is not building a collection but offering a service,” Bankhead said. “Owning the ebook file is by far the best,” he said, referring to the model being constructed by the Douglas County Libraries.

Compatibility and downloads
Freading is not integrated with the library OPAC and Library Ideas does not yet supply MARC records, although Downing said they would be available in the near future for a fee. Library Ideas provides usage statistics and can offer a link where a library can search across all of the company’s metadata.

Schoenberg, the Edmonton librarian, said the administrative interface and the reports were as “good as any vendor’s,” but the interface jumping and the lack of OPAC integration helped sway the decision against Freading in Nashville.

“We are very reluctant, until we get something like Bibliocommons, to add more platforms,” Rutherford said.

Freading requires a resident library card in good standing and a free Adobe Digital Editions account. The Orange County Public Library has prepared a good summary of the download steps. Freading also has a detailed branded FAQ page for each library.

Freading’s books come in PDFs and EPUB formats. They are compatible with the Nook, the iPad and iPhone, most Android-based tablets and smartphones, the Kobo ereader, the Sony reader, and the Kindle Fire (though no other Kindle models). Freading smartphone apps are available for download in Apple’s App Store and the Android Marketplace.

“We contacted Amazon through several channels to see if we could do what OverDrive has been doing with the e-ink readers, but we got no response,” Downing said. “The Kindle Fire is a different animal.  It is pretty much an Android tablet so if you have an Android app you can make it happen without a direct deal with Amazon,” he said.




Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. The system seems incredibly overpriced. As a medium size public library we circulate about 700,000 items per year with a total circulating materials budget of about $225,000. Even if the cost were $1 per circulation the numbers just don’t work.

  2. Robert Buckley says:

    I wonder if your math is right. You would be assuming you bought those 700,000 circs for $225,000. My guess is you have spent millions over the years to get to where you are. I don’t know, about $.80 a circ at that one library…no platform fee, no $100 ebooks, no wasted purchases, no lines….sounds pretty fair to me.

    • I was only giving an idea of scale. We have spent just under $300,000 to have a data base of just over 10,000 ebook items. We have circulated about 175,000 items since 2006. Without considering that we are getting a lot more circ per copy now the cost is fairly close to what it would have been with Freading. But at the rate we are checking out now, in the last two years, the advantage swings to acquiring (leaving aside lifetime lease problems for now). When i used our book circulation in the comment above, this was to smooth out the problem of ebook use growth. Just think, what would it cost me to circulate 50% of my current use using Freading? And, whatever percentage it is you will still need money to buy print books.

  3. Robert Buckley says:

    No offense Richard, I just don’t get your math. You have spent close to $2 a circ, and platform fees and ebook costs are heading north. This offers me twice as many ebooks, simultaneous usage, and half the cost.

    Different perpsectives I guess. Sounds like a cheap entry-point to me, rather than “incredibly over-priced.” Not everyone has $300,000 for ebooks.