Do Readers Want Library eLending?

There are two things of which I am reasonably certain:

  1. Librarians want a viable, robust library lending model for the ereading era.
  2. Publishers don’t. 

But what and authors and readers?  Do they want a viable library lending model?  I have a hunch that many authors think that obscurity – not having their works come to the attention of potential readers – is a greater threat than being denied a maximum revenue return on their writing activities because of some piracy, the loaning of copies to friends, and the lending of library-owned copies.

When it comes to readers, I assume that most want a robust library lending model for the ereading era, but a 2010 survey and resulting research report and market analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is cause for concern.  The survey was administered to 1,000 citizens in each of four countries:  U.S., U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands.  (The researchers also interviewed 40 experts.)  All survey respondents were between the ages of 18 and 65.  According to the methodology section of the PwC report, “The consumers were selected in a census-representative manner with regard to sex, age, and profession.” 

library stacksOf the respondents who indicated that they already owned a portable ereader or were interested in getting one (either through purchase or as a gift, I assume), they were asked in one of the survey questions how important a list of 21 features and affordances of ereaders were for them personally. 

The list of 21 features was a good mix of aspects of the hardware, software, and content.  The feature that the most respondents indicated was very important to them was long battery life.  Approximately 74 percent of the American respondents indicated this.  The second most important feature (about 68 percent for U.S. respondents) was a wide range of ebooks.  Other features that were very important to the Americans included:  damage resistant/easy to clean (60 percent); user-friendly operation (59 percent); display size (54 percent); and an integrated ebook store (54 percent). 

Well down the list of very important features was the concept of a lending service from a library.  About 33 percent of the Americans who respondent indicated that this was a very important feature, and only about 24-25 percent of the Brits, Germans, and Dutch rated this as a very important feature. 

While these survey results are disappointing from the standpoint of this librarian, we need to bear in mind that this is just one survey, conducted over half a year ago in May 2010. Most people who are already ereading or seriously considering it may be focused on selecting a portable ereading device and integrating it into their reading lives.  After they’ve purchased a few eBook titles at $10 to $15 per unit, they may develop a greater appreciation of the value of a robust library lending system for the ereading era. 

I also don’t really know how the survey question that led to the results presented in Figure 10 on page 21 of this report was framed and contextualized.  I don’t even know how the respondents were instructed to respond.  Was there an opportunity to indicate other desired features that were not on the list presented to them?  Were they presented with this list of features and asked to select the, say, five that they considered the most important?  If so, the fact that one in three of the American respondents included library lending as one of their must-have features may be a positive indicator of a bright future for libraries and the library lending model in the ereading era.  I’ll try to get answers to these questions from the research team and report back.  

UPDATE (Jan. 26, 2011):  Dr. Christina Mueller, a member of the research team, responded to my email inquiry with some clarifying remarks.  She gave me permission to post her remarks here.  This additional information from Dr. Mueller actually warms the cockles of this librarian’s heart, because so many respondents – nearly 3 of every 4 Dutch and American respondent — listed library lending either as very important or important.  This topic is still not in the same league as battery life, but, over time, I think it will grow in importance to readers who engage in portable eReading.

Here is the core response from Dr. Mueller:   

We asked the survey participants, how important the specific features of eReaders were for them. We gave them a list of 21 items and asked them to rank them as ‘very important’, ‘important’, ‘less important’ and ‘not important’.

We found out that of those respondents owning an eReader or who could imagine buying an eReader, 25.9% indicated that lending services from a libary were very important, for 45% it was important, 22.8% less important and 6.3% not important. When looking at the country differences, we found out that Dutch and US-American respondents regarded this functionality more highly than respondents in the UK and Germany: 73.9% in the Netherlands and also 73.9% of respondents in the US ranked lending services from a libary as imprtant or very important (US: 31.7% very important, 43.2% important).

We did not ask participants to indicate their top five features they desired from the list, but rather evaluated the most important features based on the percentage of respondents indicating the features as most important. We did not ask participants to write in other desired features that were not on the list presented to them, either. Nevertheless I hope that this gives you some further insights on our survey.

2 Responses to Do Readers Want Library eLending?

  1. Coral says:

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I would guess another factor at play is that the people who currently own ereaders tend to be on the higher end of the economic spectrum. Gadget-lovers tend to have more cash than time to spare, right? So price–and the ability to fill the device with free books–would not be the primary motivator for these people; convenience is. Having been a busy IT consultant in the past, I am entirely unsurprised that these folks care more about fast and easy books than they do about free books. Why waste what little free time you have? Even as a librarian, on a faculty salary, I have to decide each time I want a book whether the time to fight with Overdrive for my ebooks is worth more to me than the cost of the book. Sometimes… no, it isn’t.

    I admit, though, that there ought to be a number of ereader owners who are VERY price conscious. After all, there’s a strong argument to be made that an ereader could save you money over time, especially for someone who likes to read the very newest books. Hardcovers still cost significantly more than ebooks, right? And there’s Gutenberg and Overdrive–it’s definitely possible to get books for free, which only improves that equation. But I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and suggest that the average person probably would not look at an ereader and understand that, over time, its price will be offset by the cost of cheaper bestsellers. More people than you think would look at the $150 cost and say “no way.” We just don’t intuitively think that way–that kind of mental math is a learned trait.

    So… of budget-conscious consumers of ereaders, right now, I would say there are very few, proportionally, and they tend to be fairly sophisticated. Perhaps those people are the only reason libraries rank in the survey at all.

    • Tom Peters says:

      Good point, Coral. You may be right. Somewhere I read (how’s that for a watertight citation?) that a fairly high percentage (40 percent sticks in my mind) of current ereader owners received them as gifts. I don’t know how many of these gift-getters participated in this survey, but that may shed some light on this, too.

      Earlier today I emailed two of the members of this research team (one in the U.S., and one in Germany) to try to clarify exactly how that list of features was presented to the respondents, and how they were instructed to respond. No response yet, but, if I do get a clarifying response, I’ll add it to this post.

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