September 28, 2021

State Librarians Curious as Bilbary Prepares to Launch Its Ebook Platform


Bilbary is preparing for a soft launch of its ebook platform in early March, and four state librarians who constitute the ebook task force of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) are at least curious about its potential.

Stacey Aldrich, the state librarian of California, Jo Budler, the state librarian of Kansas, Eugene Hainer, the state librarian of Colorado, and Robert Maier, the director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, all met with Tim Coates, the founder of Bilbary and the former director of the British book retailer Waterstones, at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Dallas last month, and the quintet will hold a conference call again on Friday to discuss how libraries might benefit from the platform.

“At COSLA we want our members to understand all of the options available to our libraries,” Maier said. “Our discussions are entirely exploratory at this stage,” he said.

The talks with Bilbary are in the wake of the alliance that COSLA recently struck with the Internet Archive, by which all 50 state librarians are essentially acting as representatives of IA’s Open Library lending program.

At least to start, the potential benefit of Bilbary seems far more tenuous since the site will offer ebooks for sale, but not to libraries, and will not immediately have a lending feature. However, if libraries partner with Bilbary then the plan is to provide them a branded page (no catalog integration) through which patrons can opt to buy, and the library would then receive a percentage of the sale.

“But we could not sell outright to a library; we haven’t asked publishers to let us do that, and we have no plans to,” Coates said.

Coates said he has struck deals with five of the Big Six publishers (he declined to identify the holdout), and this week Bilbary signed a contract with Ingram Content Group which adds enormously to Bilbary’s offerings. When titles from academic and specialized publishers are added to the mix, Coates said Bilbary will offer in excess of 750,000 titles. The books can be downloaded to most devices.

“We either hold the files in the Bilbary cloud, or Ingram or other wholesalers are holding them and fulfill orders that come via the Bilbary site,” Coates said. “Our prices for selling ebooks will be very competitive, where we are allowed to be,” he said. In other words, with non-agency publishers.

In May, Coates said he intends to roll out a lending option for titles from academic and specialized publishers that libraries could avail themselves of, although he had no price model — either a flat rate or a per loan charge — yet in place for “rentals.”

“We just aren’t ready,” he said.

Budler, who chairs the COSLA task force, said she also did not think the service is completely ready yet, but she found the “bookstore piece” of it interesting since it extends services the library is offering and it gives patrons a mechanism to make a “contribution” to the Kansas state library’s consortial ebook fund.

“We want to say to the library users in Kansas ‘here are all your options and we want to make sure we meet your needs whatever they are, and if you can’t find content here’s a place where you can go to find it,’” Budler said.

However, Budler said there was a fine line: She does not want the library to appear to be selling things.

“My whole thing is giving everyone equity to access, and I don’t want to start pushing a service that means people have to spend money,” she said.

Her aim is for the library to serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for residents, and she said she would welcome the opportunity to work with Baker & Taylor, another wholesaler library distributor which offers the Axis 360 platform, as well.

Budler said much of Coates’ pitch to the librarians was about creating a positive relationship between libraries and publishers.

“He suggested that this would be a good, big first step,” Budler said. “I am willing to consider making the leap with him, but we are really still at the beginning of the discussion,” she said.

If publishers see libraries promoting sales in this way, it may lead to more of them softening their opposition to library lending of ebooks, Budler said. And Coates, while understanding of the publishers’reservations, said he thought they might modify their stance in the next year or two.

“These are their decisions to make, when they are ready,” Coates said. “I do understand and respect their position and that’s an important part of my dealings with them,” he said.

Coates said Bilbary would not cut out libraries, with patrons simply coming directly to his site to buy or borrow — a concern some librarians have expressed to him.

“An awful lot of people trust the library in a way they don’t other places,” he said. “The hard-nosed part of it is that most of the reading is taking place in public libraries, and, as a businessman, I’m saying that’s where most of the action is, and it’s a way of me playing a part in that,” he said. This is why he is attempting to partner with state libraries in this country.

Libraries are a “turnpike” for reading, and Coates said his ultimate goal is to provide readers greater access, which will benefit all.

“Publishers quite understandably obsess about people buying books, but they do need to pay attention to the rather larger issue of people reading,” Coates said. “If readers are not cared for [through wide access], publishers will find themselves competing with other media as a repository of intelligence,” he said.

Bilbary’s role as a content aggregator might appeal to some libraries, according to Hainer in Colorado, but if it is just another fee-based access point for content then he didn’t see much benefit.

“It’s not an ideal solution for the ‘free’ mantra espoused by libraries,” Hainer said.

He said if the Colorado state library were to offer an ebook platform, which it doesn’t at present, then it would most likely involve the one Douglas County Libraries is piloting. Douglas County not only offers a buy link but it also owns, not leases, its econtent and manages the DRM.

“The publisher argument that ebooks through libraries will harm sales is not truly plausible, given this small example [at Douglas County],” Hainer said. From January 1 to January 23, 10,000 patrons clicked on the ‘Buy Now’ links at Douglas County, and Hainer said he is in active talks with Douglas County about how the state library might get further involved.

“How much more revenue could be generated if publishers worked with—not against—libraries is worth considering,” Hainer said. But for Hainer the major issue remains ownership, as Douglas County is championing.

“Treat the materials like other content in libraries, not as a separate product with different rules,” he said.

YouTube has a demo of the Bilbary platform.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

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


  1. We (librarians) stand by and wring our hands and hope that these commercial entities won’t entirely bypass us and our patrons, and yet where is there any real indication they won’t? Certainly not in the empty assurances of Mr. Coates.

    Public libraries should be adopting a much more militant stand against the unreasonable restrictions (including not even being able to purchase titles that anyone else can purchase!) laid on us by fretful publishers. If we don’t at least start getting organized toward more militant and concerted action, while outfits like Amazon’s KOLL and Bilbary steal a march on us, we may wake up one morning to find our most supportive patrons have fled to greener pastures, where they can actually borrow an eBook when they want one.

    The End of Libraries