When I’m not working on the Author’s Interest project, I’m leading a team of data science, communication and law researchers to investigate e-lending in public libraries.

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Here’s some of us, beavering away at data collection last year

Libraries have always been able to buy and lend physical books without needing anyone’s permission. For e-books it’s different. Acquiring and lending e-books involves the making of copies and transmissions, which means copyright gets involved. Suddenly publishers have the right to impose different terms for libraries – or refuse to permit them to lend books on any terms at all.

Nobody made any deliberate decision to regulate them differently – it’s simply a consequence that flows from the nature of digital technologies. Our e-lending research seeks to understand how this impacts libraries’ abilities to fulfil their public interest missions.

In the course of this we have gathered an enormous amount of data about the availability of books for e-lending, and the terms of that access. In our largest study we examined the relative availability of almost 100,000 books across five jurisdictions: Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Canada. You can see read about the studies and play with the data via our interactive dashboards at elendingproject.org.

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Among other things, you can explore availability by publisher

In this post I briefly explain how e-lending in public libraries works, why it’s of interest to authors, and how this research is helping make things better.

How e-lending works in public libraries

For traditionally-published authors, the publisher decides whether to license books to libraries (and the terms of that access). They license their books to aggregators (such as Overdrive) who then sub-license them to libraries. E-lending is big business. In 2017, there were over a quarter of a billion ebook downloads from Overdrive alone.

At the time we collected the data, there were two main license models:

‘One copy, one user’ or ‘OC/OU’: this license enables a library to lend the book to one user at a time for as long as they have access to the platform.

‘Metered access’: libraries are still limited to one user at a time, but there are also further restrictions – by number of loans, time, or both. For example, a title might be licensed for 36 loans or two years, whichever comes first.

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In our study of almost 100,000 titles, OC/OU was the dominant lending model in all five countries

None of the books we studied were available on ‘simultaneous use’ licences, which would enable multiple readers to borrow them at the same time. This is intended to ensure that library loans don’t become a substitute for buying the book. If a reader isn’t willing to wait in the holds queue for a popular title, the hope is that they will buy it instead!

Issues for authors

Getting paid

How authors get paid for the use of their e-books in public libraries depends on their contract terms and the type of licence their publisher grants to aggregators.

If the licence is on ‘OC/OU’ terms, publishers are likely to treat them like e-book sales and pay the e-book royalty – which should be 25% or higher.

If the book is made available on ‘metered access’ terms, publishers ought to treat it as licensing income. Most contracts specify a higher rate for that – often 75%.

If you’re an author or agent: is library licensing money being paid at the correct rates?

Your books might be included in our dataset of almost 100,000 titles – if you’re curious, you can explore this dashboard and see whether they’re available, in which countries, and on which terms. 

Whether your books are available to libraries at all

We found that most publishers are making their books available to libraries for e-lending at high rates. The main exception is Hachette. Hachette makes its titles widely available to North American libraries for e-lending, but allows virtually no access to libraries in Commonwealth countries. That may be of concern to Hachette authors who are interested in earning library licensing revenues, increasing readership of their works, and/or supporting libraries’ public interest missions.

How this research is helping authors – extending Public Lending Rights to e-books

In Australia, we have public and educational lending rights which ensure authors and publishers get paid for library holdings of their books. Introduced in the 1970s, these rights provide invaluable, regular income to authors. However, they do not yet apply to e-books.

Public lending rights have recently been extended to e-books in the UK and Canada, but until now, discussions about whether and how to extend them in Australia have been stymied by a lack of data about the terms on which publishers are licensing their titles.

The data we have collected about this holds exciting promise for moving these discussions forward. Stay tuned for updates!

Want to hear more?

For those interested in knowing more, here’s the keynote I gave at IFLA’s World Library and Information Congress last month. You can also follow the project on Twitter via @elendingproject.

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