Library distribution

A group of specialist distributors serve the library market. It differs from normal trade distribution because publishers must grant special terms to allow lending, and specialized systems are required to deliver library content.


LibraryLibrary distributors acquire ebooks from publishers under special terms that allow library lending. The standard licence under which ebooks are sold prevents institutions from lending them.

Ebook lending is a contentious area. Publishers and authors are concerned about the impact that widespread free online access will have on sales, especially from public library lending. As a result, the terms offered and ebook lending practices are still evolving. Many choose not to make ebooks available to the library channel at all, or limit the parts of their list they will release to libraries.

Distributors’ services are differentiated by the types of libraries and educational institutions they target. Each type of library has different content, usage and licensing requirements:

  • Public libraries
  • Academic libraries
  • Schools
  • Specialist libraries, such as legal and financial

Licensing terms for libraries

The boom in e-reading is putting pressure on libraries to add ebooks to their collections. It sounds like a simple and logical extension of their role lending print books but in fact it poses many challenges to both libraries and the authors and publishers who hold ebook rights.

  • For libraries, there are technical challenges and the issue of how to stretch already-inadequate budgets to pay for this new medium. Their budget concerns are amplified by what many see as unreasonable terms set by publishers.
  • For publishers and authors, there are concerns about setting a fair price for ebooks that might be loaned dozens or hundreds of times, and unease about the potential damage that large-scale or unrestricted public lending might do to the emerging ebook marketplace. Easy, instant and free 24/7 access from home could be much more attractive than visiting libraries to borrow print books, losing sales that aren’t compensated by library income.

There are several ways that libraries acquire ebooks. Unlike printed books, the terms often differ based on the type of library. For instance, it’s common for academic libraries, which are closed to the public and have a heavy emphasis on research usage, to pay subscriptions to access databases of titles, and for distributors to provide tools for searching across multiple titles.

On the other hand, public libraries tend to buy specific ebooks with restrictions placed on how they can be loaned to patrons. Here are some of the more common models today.

Database subscriptions

This is common for academic libraries which are closed to the public and have a heavy emphasis on research usage. Libraries buy access to large databases of titles for an annual fee, providing unlimited or restricted access for that period. Patrons can search within and across many books in a collection to find what they’re looking for.

It’s common with these models for the publishers to receive a share of subscription fees in proportion to how many times their content was accessed, whether the whole book or pages within it.

The library doesn’t own the ebooks and must subscribe each year to retain access.

Purchase individual ebooks

This is common in public libraries. There are several ways libraries can do this, depending on the terms set by the publisher or distributor. In the past, it has been common to purchase an ebook for a one-time fee where the library effectively ‘owns’ the ebook and can lend it without further payment being made to the author or publisher. This is referred to as perpetual access, which is similar to owning a physical book. Remember that ebooks are licensed not sold which allows rights holders to control how their content is used even after it’s been sold.

Within the perpetual access model, there are variations. Some ebooks are sold with few restrictions on use. An ebook can be loaned to several borrowers at the same time (called multiple concurrent lending). This is increasingly rare for commercial ebooks. Other models tightly prescribe lending limits. The most common restriction is one book/one user which means that when an ebook is checked out, it’s unavailable to other borrowers until it is checked back in. To provide several loans concurrently, a library must buy several copies.

Many publishers and authors are reluctant to sell their ebooks for a one-time payment, especially when ebooks are so easy to lend out and are never lost or damaged. They want to secure ongoing payment for lending, for instance by charging an annual ‘lease’ for accessing the ebook, or by limiting the number of check-outs before the ebook must be purchased again. Another method is to charge a per-rental fee for some titles which can be paid by borrowers. This can help libraries to offer ebooks within their tight budgets without cutting other parts of their service, as well as compensating rights holders.

With uncertainty and so many challenges and competing interests to balance, the library market – especially the public library market – is in a state of flux. Not surprisingly, many publishers and authors are choosing to sit on the sidelines and most commercial ebooks are yet to be made available to libraries for lending.

Library distributors

In the middle of all of this sits a group of distributors who acquire ebooks from publishers under terms that allow library lending, and supply these ebooks to libraries along with the technology to lend them.

Among the leading distributors to libraries are:

Several print book library suppliers and country-specific suppliers also offer a digital distribution service to libraries.

OverDrive is the leading distributor to public libraries. Currently, OverDrive’s primary model is selling ebooks for a one-time fee on a perpetual access basis with a one book/one user lending restriction.

Libraries rely on distributors for both the content and the technology to lend ebooks. This usually means publishers can’t license their ebooks directly to libraries. It also means that libraries are often bound to distributors, losing access to the ebooks in their collections if they terminate their vendor relationship.

This can create challenges for small publishers and self-publishers. Even if libraries are keen to support local authors and publishers (as they usually are), most distributors are large international companies whose systems tend to be geared to larger publishers.


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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