Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sorry Ed, ebook lending isn't the problem with public libraries

I'm hearing a great deal about the current e-lending review that Ed Vaizey has kicked off and, since it's topical, I thought I'd offer some opinions. Commercial players in the book value chain - the government contends - are constraining the growth of that market and thereby making the library less relevant. I can’t help feeling that MPs are missing the point.

First, some numbers. Public libraries in the UK cost the tax payer just under £1.2b in 2011. Amazingly, just £70m (6.5%) of that total was spent on books – less than was spent staff (more than half the total), “support services” (somehow discrete from staff: 14%) and premises (13%). Although funding declined a little in the downturn, it has been stable for the last couple of years and all the forecasts I’ve seen have it pegged to inflation here on in.

The ebook market, on the other hand, is going gangbusters. Our latest numbers (October 2012) put ereader penetration of the adult penetration at 20%. The last official numbers (Q2 2012) suggest that ebooks are 10% of the consumer book market – I expect Q4 2012 figures to place this much closer to 20%.

Ereaders are getting close to the tipping point in innovation diffusion that’ll see them become as mass market as smartphones. There are few barriers to their adoption. 75%+ of households have broadband. Wifi is ubiquitous. Every chain book and magazine seller (including the supermarkets) are pushing one of the major brands (Kindle, Nook, Sony, Kobo). Hell, in Germany you can now get an ereader for EUR 10.

Ebooks are just books in a more convenient format. I can easily see them being half the market by revenues by 2015 and a greater proportion than that by volume of titles circulated, since there’s now a plethora of free titles available. That’s all assuming that new business models like commercial lending (e.g. Amazon Prime), 24Symbols-style subscription services and Amazon’s serialisation initiatives don’t take off.

The Government is worried that ebooks will make libraries even less relevant than they are now. They put the blame and the solution at the door of the publishing/ technology market – create an ebook lending scheme, they say, and all of a sudden libraries will be relevant again. This is pretty silly, not to mention largely impossible commercially. If ebook loans were possible to any library subscriber, for free, then it would destroy the book market, unless the Government chooses to fund the entire UK trade book market from the library coffers. In case you were wondering, trade books in the UK is a roughly £3b market with substantial positive spillover into the macro-economy. I’d love to see the latter analysis for public libraries.

Likewise, forcing subscribers to pay for their ebook downloads is a dumb idea. Why turn the library system into a glorified electronic book shop? Public sector meddling in a private sector market that functions just fine. Oh, and the idea of only allowing library card holders to download texts within the library is pretty stupid too. Why create a public sector version of Amazon Whispernet? Although that might be a good idea in some senses, it reminds me of the bad old days of New Labour Megatech projects.

No, I think the problem here is that libraries aren’t relevant and the ebook conundrum represents an easy way of avoiding tackling the thornier issue of what to do with them and the massive quango they represent. For me, the public library sector has to deliver more value to the UK economy than simply giving everyone in the country £20 of book vouchers (or more realistically, the 30% of the population that’d benefit the most £60). Here’s my 6 point plan for the public library sector.
  1. Create a set of key performance indicators for the library sector that are measurable and represent its value to the economy. If we can measure the effect of the BBC, we can measure that of public libraries. 
  2. Make the supporting infrastructure of public libraries a central Government service. At the moment there are hundreds of micro-organisations that run the library sector, frittering away resources at local council level. Basic stuff, like the systems that manage the book catalogues and library card subscribers are owned and operated at a Council or even a library layer. Even book buying is organised into Consortia that represent dozens of administrators in Councils (there are very few actual librarians in the sector anymore). This is stupid. One central function that provides the backend operations required to run a library. If Councils want libraries then they have to use this service to run everything, including stuff like staff hiring, payroll and the rest. This is 2012. We can’t afford quangos. 
  3. Outsource 1, probably in tranches of horizontal services. 
  4. Spend the money you save on books and learning resources that directly enable the broader public sector strategy of improved education and employability. Use libraries as a physical base for learning resources that the public sector can’t provide in every school and that academies can’t justify acquiring. Make the private and public/ private education establishments contribute if you like, but emphasise giving enabling content to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. 
  5. Change the infrastructure for something more relevant. If physical books are a smaller part of the estate we don’t need so many big central libraries. The high streets are dying, so help to reinvigorate them with smaller drop-in libraries offering the recent titles that the majority of casual users are after. There will always be avid readers who read the whole library catalogue, but it seems wrong to target the public library proposition at them rather than the majority. 
  6. Let the private sector participate in the market by setting up academy-like constructs with ability to make profits linked to the performance indicators decided upon in (1). Then you don’t have to give ill equipped local government employees responsibility for running a strategic asset. We might just get something we understand for the £1.2b as well.
Or alternatively we could do the easy thing and spend years researching a “national ebook lending solution” which will be obsolete at the point of deployment. Best do that, eh?

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