Califa, Douglas County Libraries, and The Internet Archive’s Open Library have made purchase commitments to acquire variations of the top 10,000 best-selling ebooks from indie distributor Smashwords. All told, the three separate commitments total about $100,000. The sales will occur through Library Direct, a new service that Smashwords has launched to facilitate the transfer of large collections of ebooks to libraries.
Library Direct was developed to target libraries and systems like DCL and Califa’s that host and manage their own ebook checkout systems, and that are capable of acquiring and securing large opening collections.
“We created this system based on their interest … Actually, we’ve been in conversation with Douglas County for over a year,” Smashwords Founder and CEO Mark Coker told LJ. “They wanted to acquire our titles, but we didn’t have an efficient system for providing them those titles.”
DCL Director Jamie LaRue described the new platform as “ground-breaking,” noting that “while some libraries have been tussling with how to move established publishers into the digital environment, Coker has pioneered new territory altogether. I believe that Library Direct gives libraries a way to sample some of the most innovative and interesting writing available. Coker is one of the entrepreneurs helping not to just to help libraries, but to define whole new branches of literature. This is just the kind of partnership we need.”
Two key issues needed to be resolved before Smashwords could begin bulk sales direct to libraries, Coker said. First, Smashwords wanted its authors and publishers to be able to set special pricing for libraries. Smashwords surveyed its authors and publishers, and while 82% said that they believed that libraries could help build sales, and more than two-thirds said they would be willing to offer preferential pricing to libraries, some wanted libraries to pay full retail, and a “small number” wanted to charge libraries more for their works.
“We didn’t have a system to do that,” Coker said. “We’ve been selling ebooks to libraries through our aggregator partners, such as Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360, at the regular retail price…We needed to have that new pricing capability in place.”
Second, they needed to set some general parameters for the new platform, and offer authors and publishers an opportunity to opt out if they wished.
“It’s our practice, whenever we open up a new distribution channel, such as Baker & Taylor or a new retailer … we create a new option within the Smashwords platform called the channel manager,” Coker explained. “It gives authors and publishers full control over where they’re distributing. They can opt in or opt out of any channel. We knew that if we were going to start selling to specific libraries, we needed a channel that would allow an author or publisher to give us permission ahead of time. Otherwise, we’d have to contact 30,000-plus authors and publishers,” and filtering the available collection, every time a library placed a major order.
The company also needed to decide on a way to help libraries select the titles that would appear in these large orders, which could include 10,000 or more ebooks from Smashwords’ collection of more than 140,000 titles. The first Library Direct order that they will process for Douglas County will require manual curation, with Smashwords basically generating a huge bestseller list using aggregated retail sales data from throughout its distribution network, which currently includes Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBookstore, and others. That list will then be filtered using specific requests from DCL.
Looking ahead, Smashwords plans to use this experience to create a set of automated tools to help its aggregator partners Baker & Taylor and 3M Cloud Library make similar lists for the libraries they serve.
“In all my conversations with both library aggregators and librarians, I’m always hearing that libraries want guidance on which titles to acquire from us,” Coker said, noting that in the self-publishing world, many titles are never professionally reviewed, and that it’s an impossible challenge to keep up with the volume of ebooks currently being published.
“These are the titles that are being purchased and read,” Coker said. “I think library aggregators, especially, will be excited about this … they can go to libraries and say, here’s the top 100, or the top 500, or the top 1,000 [or the top sellers by genre], and help libraries build out their collections with titles that have already been vetted and proven in the marketplace.”
Axis 360 and 3M Cloud Library will continue to offer Smashwords titles in smaller batches, while Library Direct will require much larger minimum orders. Coker told LJ that the minimum threshold for these orders would probably be set at $20,000.
[This post was updated with comments from Jamie LaRue]