The Ottawa Public Library wants to become the second library in Canada to let people buy – not just borrow – e-books.
Ottawa Public Library.
The Main branch of the Ottawa Public Library.
On Feb. 11, the library board endorsed a plan to partner with an e-book publisher to put a purchase button for e-books on the library’s website catalogue. It’s a way for the library to earn revenue since the library would get a percentage of each sale that started with the library’s website, which currently gets about 950,000 visits per month.
“It’s a bit of a departure from our usual mode of service,” said Jennifer Stirling, the library’s manager of system-wide service and innovation.
Customers already use the library to discover books they want to read, Stirling said. If an item isn’t in stock at the library, some people turn to e-book retailers or bookstores to purchase the item, but right now, the library receives no benefit from serving as the conduit for that purchase. Launching a retail affiliate program, as it’s called, would enable the library to benefit financially from the role it already plays in helping people discover books, Stirling said.
Library must still negotiate an agreement with publishers and vendors, so the amount of potential revenue is unknown. The library would likely receive between three and four per cent of sales that originate with customers clicking through from biblioottawalibrary.ca. That’s a firm number set by publishers, but it didn’t impress some board members.
“We’re acting as a sales agent. We’re direct advertisers,” said Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson, who sits on the board. “Four or five per cent is very low.”
Stirling emphasized that the project is a pilot and it might provide insight that will help the Canadian Urban Library Council to negotiate a larger percentage jointly with other cities.
But there is another benefit for the library. Publishers are extremely reluctant to sell e-book licenses to libraries because it cuts into profits, so libraries like Ottawa’s cannot offer many bestsellers in e-book form, Stirling said. In some cases, publishers only make a small percentage of their e-books available for licensing by public libraries – or none at all. Ottawa’s library hopes partnering through an affiliate program will make publishers more open to providing e-book licenses.
“The public doesn’t understand the challenge we face with digital (materials),” said Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder, the chairwoman of the library board. “Publishers are so threatened because we are a public library and don’t charge … so they are just not making (e-books) available to us.”
Toronto is also planning to launch a “Buy Now” program over the next few weeks, said spokeswoman Ana-Maria Critchley.
Toronto will receive five per cent from sales of both print and e-books from Indigo that originate through the Toronto library’s online catalogue.
The Toronto Public Library’s website receives 1.6 million visits per month. Leveraging those visits could provide new revenue and give library customers access to a larger volume of material while still allowing them to support and invest in their library, says a Toronto library board report from last June.