What’s missing from the UK government’s e-book lending review?

Posted on Friday 28th September 2012 2:02

Last week the UK Culture minister, Ed Vaizey, bowed to sustained pressure from publishers and The Society of Authors and announced a government review of e-book lending that will have important implications for the British book trade. The review’s stated objective is to look into the “possible consequences of e-lending, including the long term impact on library premises, the effect on publishers and the impact on those who cannot keep up with changes in technology” and will be chaired by William Sieghart, the founder of Forward Publishing.

Looking at the official announcement that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport issued, however, it immediately struck me that there were two factors missing from it that could limit the review’s real long-term usefulness. These are:-

1. Where’s the voice of Technology?
The challenge of delivering e-book lending is one of technology, but from what I can see technological expertise is under-represented in the review. In order to roll out e-lending effectively on a national scale, libraries, publishers and e-book platforms will need to agree on a common technological standard that will deliver e-books to consumers, recall them when they’re overdue and pay the authors and publishers for the privilege of their use. There are no technology specialists on this panel.

2. Where are the aggregators?
The current terms of the review are arguably under-representing the success of e-book lending in territories such as the US. Despite numerous complexities, and periodic disagreements over the licensing of e-book titles, 76% of US libraries currently lend e-books according to a survey published by the American Library Association in June 2012. How do they do this? Well, the majority of these libraries rely on aggregators for their e-books. This approach has a number of advantages for a library that wants to start e-lending but has neither the time, expertise nor the funds to build a complex e-reading infrastructure and assemble a collection of e-books. They just leave all this to the aggregator. The other advantage to publishers and authors of the aggregator-led approach is that they already have commercial agreements in place to license content, track its usage and pay royalties. By limiting the scope of this review to ‘British’ voices, does the DCMS risk ignoring valuable lessons that have already been learned on the other side of the Atlantic?

In fairness it is early days for the review, and I hope that the panel does gather and assess a wide range of evidence before coming to any conclusions that could have unforeseen effects on the health of the British publishing industry and library provision. This means including contributions from organisations and individuals that currently sit outside the mainstream of British publishing.

In my view, the worst of all possible outcomes would be if this review were to adopt a protectionist view of e-lending. Limiting the provision of e-books via libraries in order to ringfence publishers’ revenues now could have the unintended consequence of limiting future growth, shutting them out of new sources of revenue and even stoking the flames of e-book piracy. If, however, it takes a strategic view that e-lending is here to stay and libraries and publishers must work together to facilitate its success, the review will have achieved its overall objective of improving access while safeguarding the future of a venerable British industry.