Public libraries currently treat ebooks just like they do physical books. They purchase the number of copies of the ebooks they want from the OverDrive platform for a fixed price per copy. Libraries then loan those ebooks out to patrons as many times as they want to, except for certain titles which disintegrate after 26 check outs. Libraries also have to pay an annual platform fee to OverDrive to be able to use their system.
The current system is far from perfect and makes very little sense to customers that are used to downloading anything digital almost instantly. The concept of a limited number of copies of a digital file makes no sense at all. Several major publishers aren’t loaning out ebooks through OverDrive. Even with the flaws, libraries almost all use OverDrive and ebook checkouts are absolutely skyrocketing.
One company is hoping to change the entire model for borrowing ebooks through libraries. Library Ideas, LLC announced yesterday that their pay per use service is live at more than 50 libraries.
The service is called Freading and was launched in June of last year. Freading has no upfront costs for libraries and provides access to tens of thousands of ebook titles from over 40 publishers and many independent authors. The service charges libraries a fee every single time an ebook is checked out. There is no limitation on the number of times a given title can be checked out.
The advantages of the system over OverDrive are substantial. There is no such thing as a number of copies that are available so library patrons will never have to wait to check out an ebook. The entire collection of ebooks is available to every library that offers Freading. With OverDrive, libraries have to buy a copy of every title they want. This limits most libraries to only being able to offer a tiny fraction of OverDrive’s 700,000 digital titles. As an example, the New York Public Library only has 23,759 ebook titles available.
The gigantic disadvantage is that public libraries will have difficulty controlling their costs if they have to pay a fee every single time one of their patrons check out an ebook. Another drawback is that there are currently only a small number of publishers loaning their ebooks out through the service. Another major issue is that the service does not currently work from a Kindle.
Freading uses a virtual currency as a way to help libraries control costs. The service uses tokens as the currency to check out ebooks. Each ebook costs between one and four tokens to check out. A library can set how many tokens each cardholder gets each week or month. This allows a library to control the number of ebook downloads per cardholder which in turn lets the library know the maximum that they might have to pay in fees over a given period of time.
The advantages of the pay per use model over the “pretend it’s print” OverDrive model are huge. The concept of the virtual currency as a way to control total cost could be the game changer that libraries need to adopt the model. Unfortunately, any library ebook lending system has to have most of the publishers on board and has to work on Kindles to stand a chance of surviving. Hopefully, libraries will solve both of those deficiencies soon and finally be able to offer the ebook borrowing experience that their patrons are clamoring for.