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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Library Ebooks & the Indie Author Conundrum, Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog post, I detailed OverDrive, the aggregator company that distributes digital content to library systems. We left off with the question of how independent authors like myself could get their works into library holdings.

Since my librarian friend had no clue on how indie ebook authors could get into library holdings, I did a little digging. See, if I wrote an self-published a traditional paper book, I could take it to the county library system purchaser, pitch the book, and essentially sell the copies out of a box. The library has zero ability to do that with digital. The library owns no digital content assets. As my friend noted, "Ebooks are different. Those are databases we subscribe to. We actually don't own any of the titles and could suddenly lose access to them at any time." His employer, Multnomah County, subscribes to OverDrive, NetLibrary, and has a new service called ebrary coming up soon. Clearly, libraries are moving to embrace digital, but where does that leave indie authors?  In addition, if I find an ebook that I want the library to offer, how can I petition for it?

As I started poking around, I ended up on a chat session with Alison, who turned out to be the head of procurement of digital holdings for the state of Oregon. We touched on the fact that Kindle, being the one e-reader that's decidedly unfriendly to the increasingly popular EPUB format, is essentially incompatible with library e-lending. Amazon has its own very limited lending capabilities, but these are a far cry from what a library provides. As Ali noted, "Kindle supports lending, but Amazon has no interest in working with libraries."

To request digital content, patrons can go to the Library 2 Go site and click the Suggest a Title link on the home page. This brings up an email form addressed straight to Ali. "I get a lot of requests and I can't answer them all," wrote Ali. "But if the titles are available we almost always purchase them. I'd just let you know that some publishers will not make their products available to libraries, and sometimes the titles are not available as downloadable for us. So don't take it personally if you don't see your suggestion appear in the collection."

Apparently, then, the challenge is to have the book be available through one of the library's aggregator suppliers. Since OverDrive is the largest and most established of these, I went there next, to a division within OverDrive called Content Reserve. I poked around on the site for a while but came away with almost no significant information. I emailed the company and received a reply (always a good initial sign) stating that I should submit an application. "Once submitted, someone from our team will review your application. If we determine that your content is a good fit for our distribution networks, we will be in contact with you about taking the next steps."

Before spending the time on filling out paperwork, I asked again for specific requirements and guidelines regarding independent publisher inclusion in OverDrive's catalog. All I got back from this message was notice that there was a five-title minimum per publisher and to let them know if I had any further questions. I did, and my patience with this cat and mouse routine was wearing thin. I wrote back:

Details such as a five-title minimum are good to know. Are there restrictions on length? For example, as you know, many short stories are now published as ebooks. An ebook poetry collection might only have, say, 32 "pages." Some authors might try to represent a recorded chapter as a discrete audiobook file, just as books on CD are sometimes broken into different physical volumes.

Then comes issues of payment, and this is just my lack of familiarity with OverDrive's model talking. But whereas a library would historically buy one or more physical copies of a book per branch location, with the author receiving a royalty on each copy sold, how do authors get paid when it seems that a single digital file is shared to library patrons across the state? Does OverDrive pay the retail rate for titles as they're listed on sites such as Smashwords, or do you negotiate lower rates on a per-title basis? How often does licensing of these titles get renegotiated? Are any distribution rights for the author tied up while content is licensed to OverDrive?

Broadening the discussion a bit, I know that some librarians are worried about content longevity. When they buy a book, it becomes a permanent holding. But with OverDrive and digital content, the library owns nothing, right? If OverDrive decides to drop a title or the book owner(s) change the content, then the library has no ability to safeguard the original material for its patrons. We've seen The Oregonian newspaper eliminate huge swaths of content from library databases, and Texas made headlines recently when it amended its history textbooks, just to name two examples of digital era "content casualties." I understand that OverDrive is merely the distributor in the middle and probably not engaged in such decisions, but, given that you are apparently the single source of electronic library content in my state, I'm very curious if you know of any safeguards that protect the library's interests and traditional mission in this context.

The next day, OverDrive's Amy Kaufman responded with this:

Thanks for your questions. We do not currently have any restrictions when it comes to the length of an eBook. While audio publishers may break their content up into several different volumes, these would still be considered one title.

Our distribution agreement is non-exclusive, and publishers are paid on a per-title basis, just like in the physical book world. If a consortium purchases one title, they have that one title to circulate throughout the entire library system. If an individual library within that consortium would also like to purchase that title, they may have it to circulate to their specific branch, in addition to the one circulating throughout the consortia.

If a publisher decides to make changes to a title that has been readily available for sale, or remove the title all together, the libraries and retailers that have previously purchased the content will still have access to it. [my bolding]

This is better news than I expected, although I'm still fuzzy on whether individual branches are actually exercising their ability to purchase titles separately. I also notice that when I do a search for "short story" at Library 2 Go, there are no individual EPUB files, only short story collections. Perhaps I would be the first author to ask Content Reserve to purchase a short story as a discrete ebook...but I doubt it.

It remains to be seen what other barriers besides the five-title requirement might be waiting for me at OverDrive. I now have two full-length ebooks self-published, and a third should only be a couple of months away. So my library lending days may still be a ways out, but at least there's a path for indies to follow...assuming that OverDrive is true to its word and not still working for the big publishers' benefit behind the scenes. We'll see.


  1. Thanks for sharing this info. Did Overdrive mention if there is a charge for the 'application', and what the payment/royalty terms actually are?

  2. I have tried to get into Overdrive as I have a few different authors and our collection of books total 55. Overdrive still denied us. If you get in let me know what the secret is. I think there should be a better way for Indie authors and libraries to get together and make this work without the middle man.

    We would be willing to sell our eBooks to libraries around the world to libraries for $3.99 each. Email me at klr_book@yahoo.com if any libraries are interested. We are top sellers in Amazon. Our genres are true crime, fiction, self help, non, fiction and inspirational. Thank you