Expanding access through content licensing

By Micah May, September 14, 2023.
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DPLA’s mission is to maximize access to knowledge, and one of the ways we do that is by working to make the best possible ebook and audiobook licensing options available to libraries through Palace Marketplace, the only not-for-profit distributor of ebooks and audiobooks for libraries. (Palace Marketplace is run by DPLA in partnership with The Palace Project team at Lyrasis.)  We chose to begin working on ebook distribution in 2017 because we believed that libraries would benefit from having an advocate in the marketplace who could interface with publishers and negotiate deals that would benefit libraries and patrons. 

My work on Palace Marketplace has focused on two important goals: adding more publishers to make sure the widest possible variety of content is available to libraries and securing the best possible terms for libraries that are also fair to publishers and authors. Over the course of the last five years, we’ve negotiated deals with all of the Big 5 publishers, hundreds of smaller and independent publishers, and Amazon Publishing and Audible, whose digital content is not available to libraries through any other platform.

In terms of licensing, we believe that there is ample opportunity for win-win arrangements in which publishers and authors are compensated fairly for their work that also give libraries access to a variety of reasonable, flexible terms that take advantage of the digital form. I have discovered that by and large, publishers support the mission of libraries and want to ensure that their titles are discoverable in libraries. 

Libraries have told us that they want multiple options for how they license ebooks and audiobooks and that, while they are interested in the perpetual one-at-a-time model, they also like bundles of lends. What most libraries tell me they do not like are time-based licenses that expire after a set period, usually one or two years, regardless of the number of times they have been checked out. These time-bound models present operational challenges, as records need to be added or removed from the library catalog, and also often have poor return on investment, especially as titles get older and the library is less likely to have demand for a large number of checkouts within the time period. 

Based on this input, we have encouraged publishers to offer a selection of our preferred licensing models, which are available from more than 100 publishers. (You can browse titles available with these models here.) Our preferred licensing models are: 

  • Perpetual one-user-at-a-time access – We believe this license should remain the standard. The one-use-at-a-time access model may result in a queue for popular books, but perpetual access ensures that the item will remain in the library’s holdings and available to be discovered for years to come.
  • Bundles of 40 lends available 10 at a time – This bundle of lends is designed to help libraries promote books and maintain availability, allowing the titles to have maximum discovery through the library but also ensuring that, if popular, the title is repurchased. This option has been popular with libraries and many have acquired all the titles available on this model. Indexing to print, most circulating libraries review books after 40 lends to assess their condition, and are able to lend an item 40-55 times, so 40 lends represents a conservative estimate of the value a library gets from a print copy, but allowing 10 of the lends to go out simultaneously gives the library some powerful flexibility. 
  • Bundles of 100 lends available simultaneously – This large bundle will become available on more and more Palace Marketplace titles.  It allows the library to promote titles without holds queues building up. It also allows the publisher and author to be compensated appropriately because the price-per-lend is usually higher than that offered on the bundle of 40 to account for the value of making all lends available simultaneously. 
  • Bundles of 5 lends available simultaneously – This small bundle allows the library to take a low-risk chance on a book they may not otherwise acquire. It also allows the publisher and author to collect a higher price on a per-lend basis.   
  • Community Reads – Publishers who express a willingness for their titles to be included in “Community Reads” programs agree to be approached if titles are selected for time-bound promotions. Community Reads licensing is intended to help empower libraries to highlight a book, such as in city-wide read or book club programs, without making patrons wait in holds queues. This is a great way to drive the discovery of new authors and titles and build community through the library. 

In addition to offering multiple licensing options, we have worked with publishers to enable libraries to share collections. Sharing is a core library value and patrons long have benefited from inter-library loans. With the exception of one Big 5 publisher that still has restrictions on multi-library organizations, we can generally allow libraries to share collections with other libraries as widely as they would like.  

In addition to working directly with publishers, we also collaborate with a number of digital distributors, including Ingram Content Group and Independent Publishers Group (IPG). Working with these partners allows us to reach more publishers and bring a wider array of options to libraries and, ultimately, more content to patrons.

In addition, our partnership with Lyrasis allows us to offer libraries unlimited simultaneous multi-user access to tens of thousands of titles available through BiblioLabs, a Lyrasis subsidiary. This opportunity represents great value for many libraries. 

Overall, we believe that our work over the last five years to maximize access to ebooks and audiobooks has proven the power of having a nonprofit player advocating for the needs of libraries with publishers. We have seen that many small- and medium-sized publishers are excited to work with libraries and willing to offer multiple flexible options. 

On October 5, we will be hosting a webinar that will bring some of these publishers together with librarian selectors to help facilitate a conversation about how we can work together to increase access. You can find out more about this event and register to join us here.

DPLA’s ebook work is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.