Strange, isn’t it? OverDrive, the leading provider of digital books for schools and libraries, reports 196 million titles borrowed from libraries and schools in 2016 or 21 percent more than the year before. Circulation of digital audiobooks reached 55 million, a 34 percent increase, and ebooks themselves didn’t fare badly, growing 16 percent to 139 million. Circulation of ebooks for children increased 19 percent.
Why, then, is the market share of retail ebooks said to be either flat or perhaps declining? No small reason is that some major publishers, eager to protect their paper infrastructure, have jacked up ebook prices to the point where they match or even surpass those of paper books. At the same time they have retained such “features” such as onerous encryption-based digital rights management, making it impossible for consumers to own books for real. DRM is one way to enforce the expiration of borrowed library books. But even in that case, there are alternatives that don’t rely so heavily on expiration, such as the commission of open works, with fair compensation for publishers and writers.
The endowment should encourage experimentation with different business models and above all allow for variations between books. A textbook should not be treated the same as a a commercial bestseller. Above all, keep in mind that by way of better technology and ebook literacy, ebooks can become more attractive to consumers. What’s more, the existence of the national library endowment and the two library systems it supports can only help the sales of digital books and even paper ones. People will want to buy the titles they checked out, especially if they are running out of time. Also, endowment-financed promotion of books, through means ranging from commercial television to social media, can only increase demand.