While it is the sales in bookshops that keep publishers afloat, libraries provide a place of discovery and which have long acknowledged the social functions of books. E-books then, as non-perishable entities, should be well suited to the library environment.  They are portable, long-lasting cultural artifacts, and in those features, they are highly viable products. However, the recent ‘rise or the e-book’ can largely be attributed to commercial ventures. Publishers must make e-books because vendors are selling them. In such an arrangement, everyone wins. With hard copies in libraries, the same rules can apply. Each copy bought is still a sale, and eventually those books will have to be replaced. With e-books, the argument becomes difficult. A library allows multiple people to read a book for low cost, but where the purchase is once-off, there’s no profit argument to be made.

Publishers have responded to this in three ways:

  1. Making their books available for libraries to use in the traditional fashion.
  2. Putting in self-destructive DRM that limits the amount of loans on a single title .
  3. Not at all.
Making e-books available for libraries requires that the e-book file itself is modified so that it can return to the library, or, the e-book needs to exist through a cloud-based server on which lending rights have been enabled.

The basic premise to treat e-books as conventional library books. That is to say that there are only so many books purchased by the library, and those are the only ones which are eligible for lending. Therefore, once a title has been checked out, it in unavailable until it has been checked back in. Unfortunately, some publishers do have a problem with this. Frequently loaned books often needed no be replaced, anso therefore the argument has been made that e-books intended for library use should be perishable, and ‘self-destruct’ after a certain number of loans. This number is based on average amounts collected by the publishers, but there are numerous problems with it. While a piece of pre-teen could possibly be read voraciously enough so as to have it disintegrate after fourteen loans, a volume of poetry may not. The repurchasing of titles by librariacts an act of necessity, not an act of habit. As such the increase it puts on library budgets cannot be logically explained – at least not to a level which suitably satisfies all parties.

Library providers

There are many distributors which specialise in providing e-books (and audiobooks) to libraries. Typically, they allow the lending of titles to patrons through Adobe Digital Editions (through which once can authorise a portabe ePUB / PDF reader) , through the Amazon Kindle lending platform, or through vendor-specific mobile apps. What follows are three of the larger and more popular ones which cover various sectors of the industry.


This is one of the most popular on-line providers for libraries. They benefit those who prefer the generic single-copy, single-loan practices and support the brand of the library itself. Overdrive allows libraries to have a virtual bookshelf, from which books can be loaned, one at a time. Each book can be loaned for a period of 14 days and is downloaded through a strict DRM server as ODM files (OverDrive Media). Through this, returns are automatic, accurate statistics are created and business can proceed as normal, as it were. This is OverDrive’s real appeal. A library can sign on board, get access to a large database and continue to loan books as it did. OverDrive supplies e-books in whatever DRM-enabled formats are provided, including PDF, ePUB, AZW and WMA.


This provides the same function as OverDrive, but works in a slightly different way. Again a library signs up for access to the catalogue and patrons gain access through the library. The business model is slightly different for libraries though, and could arguably be more affordable. Ebrary offers a ‘perpetual archive’ which is the tried process that OverDrive follows. However they can also make books available for libraries without a purchase being made through ‘short-term loans’ and ‘patron-driven access’ which enables libraries to either temporarily own a book for a specific period (for example, a textbook for a quarter module) or use the lending requests of patrons to determine how many copies are needed. Finally, they also offer a subscription option through which a collection of books can be made available for an periodical fee. This functions more a long the lines of how journal articles are distributed, and also opens up the possibility for multiple user access. This is another path whereby a single copy of a book can be read simultaneously by a set number of people, the default of which can be determined by the publisher and the distributor.

Both OverDrive and Ebrary work behind the scenes of a library’s website, but they also offer independent apps to link patrons to their libraries.


Ingram have already made a business as a provider of print books, but also do provide e-books for libraries. However, they rather follow the multiple access route. All of Ingram’s material is hosted on-line to support use by up to three patrons, and also to avoid following the ADE route of Ebrary (an Adobe ID is actually required). While they offer individual titles, they will also curate subject areas to fill a catalogue quickly.

E-Book Lending

Library lending overall relies on the e-book files having lending rights enabled. These rights allow books to loaned, usually, for fourteen days. To grant the rights, the publisher must license them to the distributor, and it is the distributor’s DRM processes that control the lending procedures. These rights can be enabled on Kindle books, and through that process enable libraries to loan the material, as well as for the creation of informal book clubs. [1]

Outside of library providers, lending services are supported on the Kindle and the Nook, neither iBooks nor Kobo supports lending. However it is important to note that while the device itself may not support lending, it is still possible for libraries to loan e-books to those devices through a library distributor and a program such as ADE.

While lending is possible between certain e-readers, and e-reading book-clubs are possible, there is still an issue over how to provide these books to libraries in a way that is still fair to the publishers. While there are many books available with lending rights available that a library could theoretically buy and lend for a small fee, the lending rights granted to distributors do differ. In the case of retailers, lending rights are granted for personal lending, not as an alternate means for distribution. The same rules that apply to rental copies of DVDs applies to books. They are essentially a different version (as they are intended for different purposes), and therefore many e-books are not granted lending rights through a consumer distributor (i.e. Amazon or Barnes & Noble), but will  be granted through a library distributor (such as those mentioned above) where the pricing may be different and the degree of use can be better controlled.

Choices for the publisher

Lending to libraries is a choice, it is not required but definitely viable. Put simply, libraries are another channel for discovery, and if a publisher deems it to be lost sales opportunity, they can always place it under the wing of the marketing budget. Libraries are also one of the few e-books channels where DRM can be justified, because the agreement from the outset is to loan the book.

Publishers wishing to support libraries in this manner should consider both a distribution method and a leasing fare that is reasonable. There is no standard for this pricing or for the loan limitation. Currently twenty-six is the number of loans being experimented with by Harper Collins, but Random House has recently removed the loan limits on their books, but raised the prices. Books can be distributed freely through the informal on-line books clubs and even the Kindle Lending Library (which patrons access via their Amazon Prime account).

With these options it is also worthwhile to keep in mind that the costs per library can range from annual fees of (approximately) R6’000~R250’000. These costs include the access and maintenance fees, and increase with purchases (sometime up to three times higher) and subscription fees.[2] Who a publisher decides to place their content with will determine the availability and affordability of those titles.

Presentation here.

Suggested reading

1. Huysmans, F. (2013). Dimensions in business models for public library e-lending. Summary of the National Authorities on Public Libraries in Europe report on public library lending. Available online: http://warekennis.nl/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/130521_Business_models_ebooks.pdf

2. American Library Association. (2013). Ebook business models for public libraries. Available online: http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org/sites/americanlibrariesmagazine.org/files/EbookBusinessModelsPublicLibs_ALA.pdf

3. Summary of articles 1 & 2. Available online: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B91wtoGJRjZLMllxZjl0UUxnTk0/edit?usp=sharing


  1. These can be organised through social networks or exist as on-line databases such as booklending.com. When this group started up us the Kindle Lending Club in January 2011 but was required to change it's name as Amazon owned the trademark on the name Kindle. A similar start-up Lendl, was shut down by Amazon in March of 2011, but the service was reinstated after two days.
  2. These figures are based on a comparison of OverDrive, Ingram and Ebrary (see Farrell 2010, Kelley 2011 and Reid 2011) for a detailed comparison).


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