Posted on September 12, 2013 in Archive

Libraries vs. Publishers: What the digital publishing world can learn from Sweden


Sweden is wonderful, for a number of reasons. It gave us Ikea, ABBA and the Aurora Borealis. But more recently (and relevantly), it has created a groundbreaking e-book lending model that digital publishing could really learn a lot from. 

Libraries all over the world are currently locked in something of an “e-book war”. Effectively, publishers and libraries are under the impression that because e-books and books are under the same physical roof, they should function under the same traditional lending system.

Larger publishers have been arguing since 2011 that libraries should pay a licensing fee for each individual copy of a book that they loan out.

On top of this, they should also have to renew the license after a set number of circulations (HarperCollins feels that 26 is a fair number). This model is commonly referred to as the one-book-one-license system.

HarperCollins leads the argument, claiming that since lending e-books is supposed to emulate the system of lending physical books, regular wear and tear is to be anticipated, hence the expectation to buy a new license.

This is illogical for obvious reasons. It’s also incredibly unpopular. E-books simply aren’t the same as physical books. The same goes for magazines. Pages can’t be ripped out, and one copy can be loaned out concurrently to a number of patrons (though either way, dropping it in the bathtub still brings disastrous results). So unless the text-file that libraries loan out becomes corrupt, the number of times that an e-publication can be lent out cannot be defined.

To cut a convoluted issue into smaller, simpler pieces – publishers are treating e-books like goods, when they should be treated like services.

That’s exactly what Sweden is doing – publishers and librarians have joined forces to make a system that leaves both parties happy. The main points of the system are:

  • Transaction fees for each loan
  • No limit on concurrent loaning
  • No entry fees for access to full catalogues

Publishers are happy because the system is essentially self-regulated; they set their own fees for each title, and are free to change the price. Therefore, it can’t hurt sales.

Libraries are happy because they can select which titles they carry. As a result, Swedish library networks circulated six times more e-publications than the commercial sector did.

Liquid State - digital publishing - Swedish library

There’s no Stockholm syndrome when it comes to Swedish libraries – people already love them.

Now, that’s a lot. I’m sure other countries wouldn’t mind flaunting figures like that.

So why don’t they start? This proves that publishers and libraries can be best friends, if they put the effort in!

A possible reason is that this is a fairly new field, with much of its territory uncharted. Bigger publishers, especially, and libraries have coexisted for so long under the paradigm that once the library has purchased a title, they are free to do with it what they like. Now the whole system has to be renegotiated, and both sides want to feel as though they are getting the better deal.

However, (and this is an important bit) all the non-Swedish library patrons are getting caught in the middle, and they know it.

At the 2013 Book Expo America conference, panelist and American Library Association president Maureen Sullivan gave the issue some perspective: “… This is the classic example of disruptive innovation. It causes a lot of misunderstanding, it brings fears to light… It’s much more effective to think not ‘either/or’ but ‘and’.”

Disruptive innovation is a very nice way of putting it. Let’s hope a peace treaty is signed soon in the Libraries vs. Publishers war, before they both end up losing (probably to Amazon).

Tumblr image from aberrantandpostrational.