The e-boom – when is it coming?

When is the e-book boom coming to Sweden, and how does it affect the ability of libraries to make e-books available? That is the question that the National Library of Sweden’s (Kungliga biblioteket) e-book investigation set out to answer when it started its work in the spring of 2011. The question, however, is not so easy to answer. In some areas, the boom has already started, but, in others, it might never happen. The subject of e-books and libraries is multifaceted and difficult to define.

In recent years, the debate about ebooks and libraries in Sweden has intensified. When the National Library of Sweden was given an extended mandate  to coordinate all publicly-financed libraries, a commission was assigned to work together with the Swedish Library Association (Svensk Biblioteksförening) to assess which problems exist in making e-books available through libraries. This is a condensed account of that assessment.

In short, the assessment shows that the situation on the Swedish e-book market is somewhat locked. The range of titles available in Swedish is extremely limited and there is also no great demand from readers. Neither the publis- hing houses, the authors nor the consumer electronics industry have made any serious attempts to launch the e-book as a product for the masses.

The chicken or the egg

The explanation for this is mainly that financial incentives are lacking. Publishers enjoy having a stable and working market for printed books where conditions have been well-known for a long time. An upcoming market for ebooks appears uncertain and is associated with a number of unsolved problems relating to copyrights, file sharing and uncertain profit margins. Neither do authors seem to see any great opportunities for financial gain with e-books; neither for new books nor older titles that are now out of print.Within the consumer electronics industry, there is little interest in marketing reading devices, since both content and customer demand are lacking.

From the user’s perspective, there is little demand for e-books, whether they are commercial products from publishers/ booksellers or are freely-available files from the library. At this stage, many people lack technical know-how and there are few who consider it worthwhile investing in a reader when there is not very much to read. In the few cases where there are new titles in e-book format, there is no established technical format. The pricing also means that e-books are not yet competitive. User surveys show, too, that people seem to prefer physical books.

“I still believe that consumers can be the driving force behind an increased range of e-books being available,” says Göran Konstenius, who is operations assessor at the National Library of Sweden and has led the assess- ment. “As more and more acquire tablet PCs and smart phones, interest in e-book reading will increase. Finding simple distribution systems from author to consumer is also an important piece of the puzzle. Currently, complicated technology and a lack of standards is often a hindrance.”

Locked situation

Apart from the financial forces that are missing for an e-book boom to occur, there are also a number of legal and technical problems that need to be overcome before things can start to happen in earnest. Both authors and publishers are uncertain about how to sign agreements for e-books without one of the parties losing out. As for the technology, platforms for distribution and payment are currently lacking. Meanwhile, it is not inconceivable that entities other than those who traditionally deal with books will bring out initiatives that push development forward. This could, for example, be broadband suppliers or mobile telephone operators that see a benefit in including extra services and content with their offerings.

The assessment also contains an international consideration, which suggests that development has progressed much further abroad, primarily in the Anglo- Saxon world, but also in countries with large language areas, such as France and Germany. This applies within the commercial sector as well as in the library world. Changes abroad may also come to affect the situation in Sweden. Large international players might start releasing their products on the Swedish market, making the boom hit very quickly. American company Amazon, for example, has in recent years begun releasing its Kindle e-book reader outside English-speaking countries.

Libraries and e-books

Even if the situation on the e-book market is rather locked at this stage, electronic media are nothing new for university and research libraries. Here we can say that the boom happened a few years ago. Today, these libraries spend about 80 percent of their budget on electronic material. They have drastically thinned out the shelves, reduced the size of their premises and abandoned much of the traditional library management. But the transition to electronic media has not been completely without problems. Often, the commercial entities offer a number of different technical platforms and business models that are complicated and make it difficult for libraries to keep stock and stay in control over their collections.

When it comes to public and school libraries, any potential boom has yet to occur, even though discussions and debates about it have been going on for several years. Although many public libraries offer e-books for borrowing, based on a commercial supplier, the agreement means that e-book lending would become very costly if borrowing were to suddenly increase. Additionally, the libraries’ ability to influence their collection is controlled by the interests of the publishers. But there could also be alternative functions for libraries, according to Göran Konstenius:

“When demand for e-books increases, it will become more attractive for publishers to digitise older titles that are expected to be interesting to larger audiences, but the prognosis for smaller titles is less clear. This is where digitisation by the library could be the answer.”

Strategic choices

The conclusion reached by the National Library of Sweden’s assessment is that the e-book boom – whether it has already occurred or is drawing close – is going to require libraries to define their roles ever more clearly in the future. The digitisation of e-books will eventually require new strategies for the different kinds of library. For specialised libraries, the digitisation of unique items and collections is important  in order to facilitate management and access. Hospital libraries often play a dual role in that they are for both research and patient use; two groups with completely different needs. For school libraries in the long term, the ebook boom will mean a transition to handling electronic teaching materials in a way reminiscent of academic libraries. Many within the school system are in favour of abandoning the exacting handling of printed teaching materials, therefore hopefully having more time for qualified coaching and information retrieval.

The assessment observes that, when the e-book boom reaches public libraries, they will be faced with a similar restructuring process already undergone by university libraries. The question is how public libraries will be able, financially and organisationally, to restructure in this way when there are currently great demands on the traditional library service from those borrowing books.

“Personally, I think that an interesting question is how the public library service may be affected if e-book borrowing were to increase significantly compared to today”, says Göran Konstenius. “If the download can be done from home, the number of visits to the library in order to borrow books drops. Perhaps that would open up the opportunity for other activities related to literature, reading and other kinds of cultural mediation at the library.”

Rickard Carlsson
Press- and Communications Officer
Communications Division
National Library of Sweden
Rickard.Carlsson AT kb.se

Rickard Carlsson Press- and Communications Officer at National Library of Sweden