Real Good for Free

I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts over the past few years about e-readers, e-books, and the resulting tension between publishers and libraries. In the “Sparring Over E-Books” section of her article “Changing Policies on Digital Books Wreak Havoc on Libraries,” Jenny Shank repeats the publishers’ argument about “friction.” Essentially, publishers are fine with libraries lending books to patrons for free, as long as it is slightly more difficult for people to use the library than to buy books in a store or online. However, if it’s just as easy to borrow a book from the library as it is to buy it, then (the argument goes), sales will plummet.

Let’s backtrack to the days before online ordering, when buying a book meant going to a bookstore, and borrowing one meant going to the library. If you got a book from the library, you had to return it, meaning you had to make one extra trip; if you bought the book, you didn’t have to go back to the bookstore until you wanted to. An extra trip is a little extra friction, a little added inconvenience (assuming you aren’t the kind of person who goes to the library every week whether your books are due or not).

With online sales of both e-books and print books, it became much easier to buy books and have them shipped to you; frictionless, one might say (except for the friction of the money leaving your account). Now that libraries are also offering e-books – or at least trying to – some publishers are objecting that there ought to be some inconvenience introduced to the process, that it should be harder to borrow an e-book than to buy one. To these publishers I say: have you ever tried to borrow an e-book from a library? For most systems, “one-click” doesn’t enter into it.

But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend borrowing an e-book from a library is as easy as buying and downloading one from Amazon or Barnes & Noble (or one of the independent bookstores that offers e-books). People have been able to get books from the library for free for years. And has that caused the collapse of the publishing industry? No, it has not. (Remember: libraries buy their books from publishers! Libraries are customers, too. And libraries buy a lot of books.)

One book borrowed does not equal one lost sale. In fact, people who borrow are also people who buy; this is true of music as well as books, as Christopher Harris points out in American Libraries (“Giving Away Music Increases Sales…Just Like For Books”).

The title of this post comes from a Joni Mitchell song. “Real Good for Free” is on the album Miles of Aisles.

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