April 17, 2013

Simon & Schuster announce new ebook lending program for libraries


Max Schuster and Dick Simon, hard at work.

Simon and Schuster, launched long ago in 1924 on the back of the very first, and bestselling, crossword puzzle book, is the newest in a line of publishers who’ve recently announced pilot ebook lending programs for libraries. (See earlier MobyLives reports on Macmillan’s and Penguin’s programs here and here.) Yesterday, S&S, which was the last of the Big Six publishers to make their ebooks available to libraries, issued a press release with details about the pilot, which will initially be confined to the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Borough Public Library (three separate library systems, though two of them are about to get a little bit cozier).

Unlike the Macmillan and Penguin programs, S&S is making all of their titles available right away, both frontlist and backlist, which will include books like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, The Glass Castle, Angela’s Ashes, She’s Come Undone, and other backlist heavyweights, alongside current bestsellers like Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller and Mary Higgins Clark’s The Lost Years. There’s no word on the price libraries will have to pay per book, which has been sore point in other lending schemes, but since each copy will only be lendable for a year after purchase—though the library can lend it out an unlimited number of times during that year—it’s likely that the cost is closer to retail price than the significantly higher prices some publishers have set.

The New York and Brooklyn branches have chosen to go with 3M, as they did last year in the Penguin program, which should give Overdrive, until recently the only major distributor of ebooks to libraries, pause. Librarians have for some time had serious objections to Overdrive’s arrangements with Amazon via their Kindle lending program, objections summarized in an equally eloquent, informative, and pissed-off video posted by library blogger Librarian in Black back in October 2011. Now, the library market seems to have moved away from Overdrive, though not necessarily to a model that keeps library functions and sales strictly separate, as librarians might prefer. In the S&S model, patrons who don’t want to wait for a book on the holdlist will have the option to buy the book instead—and the library gets a cut.

Which is not where I thought we’d end up in this discussion. But until ebook publishers and libraries can come to an arrangement that satisfies patrons’ different expectations about the availability of digital content, and until library budgets are expansive enough to allow them to buy as many copies of ebooks as their patrons want, this might be a good compromise.

Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.