Saturday, March 5, 2011

eBook Carrots for Libraries

"Provide a great service and charge a lot for it" was the advice of an old friend who became a successful businesswoman. I frequently think of this advice; I have sometimes failed to follow the second part and have mostly regretted it. If you provide what your customers value, you should have no qualms about asking them to pay a premium. If you don't give the customers what they value, they won't be happy even if you give them a big discount.

The results of the dual survey I posted on Monday are confirming my guesses about HarperCollins' new strategy for limiting checkouts of ebooks they license to libraries though Overdrive, which sparked the so-tagged #HCOD furor. (The limitations are in addition to a one user at a time limitation imposed on these ebooks.) The results indicate that HarperCollins' new service terms don't give the customers what they value. They'll be unhappy, even if they're offered big discounts.
At what price discount would your library opt for a 26-check-out ebook?
At what premium would your publishing company offer an unlimited-check-out ebook?
The survey for publishers has only attracted 28 responses so far, not enough to make anything other than very broad statements. The survey for libraries has attracted 155 responses, and thus has much better statistics. The poll is in no way scientific; there is sure to be significant sampling bias. In other words, the survey only measures the opinions of librarians and publishers who are motivated to answer.

Significantly, 37% (±5%) of librarians indicated they would not purchase limited-check-out ebooks at any price. I would characterize this response as arising from non-quantitative considerations, which might be practical, ideological or philosophical. A similar percentage of publishers, 28% (±12%) indicated that no amount of money would convince them to offer an unlimited-check-out ebook (which is the most common type today). So it seems that publishers also have considerations that transcend math, which I find a bit surprising.

If we compare the rest of the responses, omitting the non-quants, we see that the librarians perceive a much lower value for limited-check-out ebooks than do publishers. 52 of these 97 librarians would purchase limited-check-out ebooks only if the they were priced at a quarter or a tenth of the ebooks offered without checkout limitations. In contrast, only 1 of 18 quantitative publishers thought the relative value of limited-check-out ebooks was so small.

What's clear is that even omitting the non-quant responses, librarians are perceiving the new HarperCollins licenses as being worth a small fraction of the previous licenses, offered at the same price. It's not surprising that they think it's an awful deal. It's a stick, not a carrot.

Publishers SHOULD be valuing the two licenses based on revenue lift, and they don't seem to expect a huge revenue lift by limiting check-outs. 10 of 18 quantitative publisher respondents seem to expect a revenue difference of 50% or less. My guess is that they're roughly right; I will do some modeling based on library check-out statistics and report on that next week or so.

Looking at the survey results from the other side, librarians are reporting that they put a huge value on the "durability" of the ebooks they license. They don't want books of any kind that wear out! Publishers that want to deliver the highest perceived value (and thus justify the highest prices) should consider finding ways to add to this quality.

One way to increase an ebook's durability is to use standard formats, such as ePub or PDF. This increases a library's confidence that the ebooks will survive into the future; ePub and PDF are the formats used by Overdrive. Unfortunately the DRM ("Digital Right Management") systems that wrap these files are proprietary, and there is a risk that a library's "purchases" will disappear if their ebook platform vendor (Overdrive) or DRM provider (Adobe) disappear in the future. Libraries are used to thinking with long time horizons, and it's a rare library that doesn't have books over 50 years old, much older than either Overdrive or Adobe.

The simplest way to add to the long-term durability for ebooks is to provide libraries with DRM-free, not-for-circulation files in addition to the  DRM wrapped files for circulation. Libraries are used to dealing with license restrictions and have a good record of compliance in this sort of matter; it's likely they would opt to delegate the safekeeping of such files to third-parties. They'd also want to be able to use the files to replace the statutory copying of print books allowed to libraries under US copyright law and to aid discovery in their catalog systems.

Another way to increase the value of an ebook license to libraries without reducing publisher revenue is to selectively allow those uses that are most likely to create publicity and lead to sales. Imagine what would happen if most library ebooks allowed simultaneous use in the first month after a book's publication. This would help libraries attract patrons with "hot" items, and would likely increase total sales by building buzz. Many library readers would want to purchase the book once their loan period expired. More patrons for libraries translates into stronger funding, (or at least less cuts!) which in turn allows for better acquisition budgets.

Andy Woodworth has some more ideas on making ebook rights packages that would be attractive to libraries, and I'm sure there are be many more ways for publishers to offer ebook carrots to libraries. Or at least a parsnip.

Updates: The polls remain open. Gluejar is still hiring, but it's looking like the team will be awesome!
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