An American Editor

February 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal V: Libraries & Indies in the eBook Age

Recent posts on some blogs and forums I visit have questioned the future viability of libraries in the future ebook world. These got me thinking about libraries and independent bookstores.

I think libraries are the repositories of knowledge; it would be tragic if they disappeared, removing a fantastic resource for learning and knowledge. Libraries are a great way to introduce children to the wonders of books and reading. When my children were young, library visits were a weekly excursion and I expect to repeat the same with my grandchildren.

But now libraries — and independent bookstores — face a threat of extinction through the growth of ebooks. I admit that my power in Washington is nil and that getting Congress to do anything to protect libraries in the digital age is beyond my abilities. So, instead, I’m offering a modest proposal that, hopefully, doesn’t take an act of overpaid politicians to accomplish. I admit that the idea is in the germinal stage, but I also think it’s one worth exploring.

I modestly propose that libraries and independent bookstores combine and create a new entity that I’ll call the Lindie for want of better imagination (shall we hold a contest for a better name?).

Currently, many communities have at least one large building dedicated to the local library. If there is an independent bookstore in the community, it usually is a very small affair and in precarious financial condition.

As things are presently constructed, libraries and indies work against each other’s best interests. Indies want to discourage readers from borrowing, preferring that they buy, and libraries want to encourage borrowing. Additionally, indies have to fight against online booksellers, the growing ebook market, and the chain bookstores — very daunting tasks. Libraries have to deal with declining numbers of readers.

But what if my local library became a book mall, a Lindie, a place where I can both borrow and buy? I would readily give up visits to Barnes & Noble and online book buying, and if not give up entirely, at least significantly reduce those visits and buying. The Lindie would be my choice for one-stop shopping for the reader.

No indie bookstore can carry on its shelves the variety of books that the library can; they simply can’t afford to. Many indie bookstores supplement their current books with “antiquarian” and specialty offerings. Think about a reader browsing the library shelves and then wandering over to the  in-library bookseller and buying a print or ebook version.

The indie bookstore would pay a rental income and perhaps a percentage of sales to the library, thereby helping the library fund its own purchases. The library would provide the shelf material, the inventory so to speak, for the bookseller. More importantly, the combined resources of the Lindie could enable the purchase or lease of an Espresso-type machine (the one that prints books to order, not the coffee type). Currently, this is cost prohibitive for most small indie bookstores.

Someone who read a borrowed book and really liked it or wanted to give it as a gift to a relative or friend could get a copy printed at a discount or purchase an ebook version on the spot. And because of lower business costs, the indie bookstore would be better able to compete against Amazon and B&N by offering  a comparable discount and still make money.

Suppose the indie had a book that someone was looking to read but didn’t want to buy and which was missing from the library’s collection. Why not have a system where the indie supplemented the library’s lending collection? Perhaps by directly lending for a fee or by allowing the library to “lease” the book on behalf of the borrower.

And don’t forget the marketing capabilities. Think about combined marketing and advertising, especially around holidays.

But, you ask, how does this help the library in the age of ebooks? By providing funds to the library to purchase and expand their pbook and ebook offerings, by offering a single place for book lovers to go and thus increasing lending, which is often the basis for financing, and by giving libraries a source of revenue they currently do not have. For the indies, the advantages are lower costs and a better ability to compete.

One other advantage to indies and libraries is that many libraries have community rooms, places to hold readings, signings, children’s activities, senior meetings, and the like. The indies could sponsor more community events to draw in community members and the libraries could offer those events at minimal to no cost it.

By turning into a book mall where one can both borrow and buy books in either ebook or pbook form, the Lindie offers a way to save two endangered species: the local library and the local bookstore. It’s a win-win, I think.

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