The challenge of e-lending – will it help sustain media jobs?

Tomorrow, the DCMS will publish its recommendations on best practice for how (and if) public libraries should lend e-books. It’s not straightforward, as this item on C4′s news tonight demonstrates. There are four parties involved – users, publishers, authors and libraries themselves – each of which demand satisfaction.

Libraries have always challenged the publishing business model; but e-lending, with the implicit suggestion that the reader can borrow a book at any time from anywhere, throws the doors wide open. A drop in physical visits to libraries will further undermine their place in society, where they are already hugely threatened (whatever the disingenuous Ed Vaizey implied in C4′s report). This will disproportionally hit poorer readers, who are unlikely to be able to shell out £100 for an e-reader. And the PLR fee of 6p per book borrowed is not currently extended to the lending of e-books. So nobody is happy.

One advantage that the book publishing business has is that it has seen the disaster which befell the record labels when they failed to get a proper grip on electronic distribution. As a result, they have been properly cautious in their approach: possibly too much so, if HarperCollins’s approach to e-lending is indicative. But the industry is well-placed to protect its own interests and sustain media jobs, and publishers should continue to view lending as a marketing device for their back-list.

So here are some suggestions. At the very least, the DCMS must recommend that authors should get their full PLR fee for e-lending, just as they should receive a full royalty for e-book sales. This, in turn, will force libraries to value their lending. Libraries must maintain their role as the gatekeepers to lending: it is within their power – and within technological means – to restrict the availability of titles, the number of titles that a single device can download, and the length of time a title is available for viewing after downloading. Properly applied, these restrictions could meet the requirements of all parties.

The throwaway remark at the end of C4′s report, though, is potentially worrying. Amazon’s Kindle does not currently permit e-lending – which sounds, superficially, encouraging. Kindle has been pretty fierce about protecting copyright. However, the inference of the report was that this leaves the way open for Kindle to start its own e-lending programme in competition with libraries here. Personally, I think this unlikely: Kindle has thousands of free books already, but it is intrinsically linked to a bookseller which makes considerable profits from sales. It is an unusual retailer that gives away a product it could sell. But – lest they be tempted – the DCMS should propose the drawing up of legislation that ensures that any commercially endorsed lending of e-books in the UK territories is subject to the same PLR requirements as that through public libraries.

There – job done. If the DCMS want to call me, my number is on the Contact page of this website.