Tor, OverDrive Comment on Library Ebook Embargo

An update on Tor's four month embargo on selling new ebooks to libraries.

Tor logoIn a move that has raised concern throughout the library field, Macmillan in July announced that it would be testing a four month embargo on selling new ebooks published by its Tor imprint to libraries. The publisher said the test would help it determine whether library lending is having a negative impact on retail ebook sales. For libraries, the embargo recalled a time less than a decade ago when many major publishers refused to license ebooks to libraries altogether.

Since Macmillan began offering its full catalog of ebooks to libraries in 2014, the publisher has seen “exponential growth” in library channel sales, Fritz Foy, president and publisher of Tor and Forge Books, told LJ last week. However, “we’ve always had some concerns about the impact that [library sales] might have on other channels. We saw a lot of indicators…of some level of cannibalization in both print and digital from a variety of different channels.”

As Foy noted, determining the impact that library ebook lending has on the overall sales of a title is difficult to track.

“We tried to identify within Macmillan…a stable group of titles, where we could pull them out of the mix, briefly, [and learn whether] the overall sales patterns of those books would change at all,” he said. Tor has “very stable, repeatable sales patterns among authors and series—a real consistency book to book. You don’t have the noise you see in other genres.”

With the embargo test now impacting eight to ten titles per month, Foy added that it’s “a relatively small slice when you look at all of Macmillan.”

Sales and Marketing

According to recently released Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) figures, there are more than 9,000 public libraries and more than 17,000 public library branches in the U.S., When given access to frontlist ebook titles, these institutions purchase a lot of licenses. In fact, the IMLS figures show that ebooks in library collections have increased by over 2,600 percent from 2006 to 2015 (the most recent year studied). Ebooks now make up 25 percent of all collection materials, as opposed to one percent in 2006. The decline of chain bookstores has also made public libraries an increasingly important partner for introducing new authors and titles in many U.S. communities.

“Unfortunately, there is just a lack of appreciation of the great value that authors, agents, and publishers receive by having their ebooks, digital audiobooks, and [print] books available for discovery and potential use in public libraries,” OverDrive founder and CEO Steve Potash told LJ. “It’s a global problem.”

Potash said that the publishing industry has long been unaware of the outsized impact that libraries have on sales, because “prior to ebooks, even the publishers never knew which libraries bought their books or how many copies, because [library orders] were being fulfilled by the traditional wholesale distributors…. Authors and agents aren’t appreciating that libraries are spending hundreds of millions of dollars…in print and digital, which is contributing to their earnings.”

In addition, publishers tend to focus too narrowly on hardcover retail sales, Potash argued. “That’s what they track, most explicitly. They don’t realize the lift for discovery and brand development that public libraries contribute to 24 hours a day through their online catalogs and through the 1.5 billion visits into their branches—and I’m just referring to the U.S.”

These were, in part, the arguments that ultimately helped persuade Big Five publishers such as Macmillan to begin licensing frontlist titles to libraries a few years ago. Major publishers have mostly left their library licensing models intact since then, perhaps giving the library field a sense that this issue was settled. However, ebook sales declined10 percent in 2017 versus 2016, according to PubTrack Digital data released this spring. Although these losses have been offset by increases in audiobook and hardback sales, publishers will continue looking to shore up ebook sales, and librarians are certainly hoping that their institutions aren’t once again viewed as scapegoats.

This spring, with initial funding from Rakuten OverDrive, the Panorama Project was launched as part of a data-driven effort to quantify “the impact of library holdings on book discovery, author brand development, and sales.” While Macmillan is participating in the Panorama Project, and may provide the organization with data from the Tor embargo test, library organizations questioned why the publisher couldn’t wait for the project to generate results.

In an official statement, American Library Association (ALA) President Loida Garcia-Febo said “I am dismayed…to see Tor bring forward a tired and unproven claim of library lending adversely affecting sales. This move undermines our shared commitment to readers and writers—particularly with no advance notice or discussion with libraries.” The test was “particularly unexpected and unwelcome,” she added, as it was announced “literally on the heels of Panorama’s launch.” Garcia-Febo called on Macmillan to end the test.

Amazon’s Impact

ReadersFirst, a global coalition of more than 300 libraries dedicated to enhancing library access to ebooks, posted an open letter to Tor/Macmillan questioning the embargo test, and arguing that consumer ebook sales trends have likely been impacted by the growth of self-publishing.

“That the Sci-Fi/Fantasy eBook market may be changing, with a large growth in sales of indie [titles], is beyond doubt,” the letter reads. “What, however, is your evidence that eBook lending by libraries is having a deleterious effect upon your sales? Could trends other than library eBooks sales have more to do with any decline you may be seeing?”

Noting that self-published ebooks now have the largest market share as measured by unit sales, the letter goes on to suggest that “Amazon dominates overall unit sale distribution. By revenue, the company ranks fifth in eBook sales and second in eAudiobook sales. We suspect that Amazon is using indie sales to lower pricing while deeply discounting higher priced larger publisher content, as noted here by ‘Amazon Ebook Dollars by Discount from Digital List Price.’ We wonder if Amazon, and not libraries, is the source of any decline you may be seeing.”

Potash pointed to Amazon as well. “Amazon has indicated that its fastest growing catalog of ebook sales [is] self-published authors, and they are adding 100,000 new titles. This clearly explains why big New York trade houses, when they look at their ebook retail sales flattening or declining, this is the cause.” The largest retailer of ebooks has introduced a massive influx of indie titles into the market, no one outside of Amazon has the sales data to determine the exact nature or scale of the impact that this is having on the broader ebook market, but one would assume that it is significant, according to Potash.

Big Picture

The Panorama Project aims to bring more clarity to the role that libraries play in the publishing industry, tracking all physical and digital forms of a work and analyzing data from publishers, distributors, booksellers, libraries, search sites, social sites, and other sources. Potash said that aggregate data from OverDrive indicates that library collections are always used for partly for browsing, sampling, and discovery.

“We’ve known for fifteen years that for every individual who borrows and downloads an ebook, there are 50 sessions where [other patrons] are looking at the title without a borrow…. And we know the reasons why,” he said. “If they are on a wait list, they don’t like to wait—especially if it’s a long wait list, which is common. Or they don’t even want an ebook. They’re looking for what to read next, but want to [preview] a book” before borrowing or buying in print. Some people don’t even have a library card, but use library catalogs or apps to browse, Potash noted.

Based on results OverDrive has measured following promotions like its Big Library Read events, Potash seems certain that the Panorama Project will help prove that libraries can have a positive impact on publisher sales.

“There have been some dramatic success stories,” he said. “When libraries recommend a title or select it—even for two weeks—for a digital book club, we can see the spike in sales ranking on Amazon for the digital book. We can track the spike in likes and adds on Goodreads.”

Temporary Test?

In addition to the official responses from ALA and Readers First, there has been lots of negative feedback on social media. On Twitter, many readers declared “embargoes” of their own on Tor ebooks, while many librarians argued against the premise of the test. For example, on August 27, @PolyLibrarian wrote a long thread detailing the nature of holds lists for ebooks, and discussing how library patrons spread the word about books and authors, concluding that “Tor’s embargo on library ebooks is many things. Stupid, yes. But also punishing to their own authors, who are now missing out on readers, potential new fans, potential sales, etc. Which translates to their own bottom line.”

Tor and Macmillan have avoided engaging with librarians on social media about the test. But Foy said that the publisher had discussed the test via phone calls with several systems. In a few cases where events or promotions were already scheduled for an author or title, exemptions from the embargo had been given on a case-by-case basis. “We’ve tried to not be highly proscriptive in this,” he said.

“We have a great deal of empathy…and are not surprised by any of the feedback we’ve gotten from library systems and librarians in general,” Foy said. “It’s an important market for us. We think [libraries] are a very important channel…. We needed to have the opportunity to do a bit of testing around what, exactly, was happening [to retail sales] and how libraries were impacting other markets.”

Macmillan plans to continue the Tor embargo test until it can gather enough data to make its own determination about the impact of library lending on commercial ebook sales. Last week, Foy told LJ that it was still too early to get a sense of the embargo’s impact to date. For now, he said that Macmillan has no plans to expand the test beyond the Tor imprint.

“The bottom line is, we’re trying to get to the right answer” for a library licensing model, Foy said. “Whether that involves an embargo at all, I don’t know right now. It will probably be a combination of business model, or price, or it could be that we end up distributing as we were before, if it turns out that our assumptions were incorrect. It’s hard to say which way it’s going to go.”

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