Buy, Borrow or Both? What the Boersenverein’s Survey of eLending Does and Doesn’t Tell Us

Last year, the German book industry organisation – the Boersenverein – published research commissioned from GfK on library eLending, including comparative analysis between physical and eBook buyers and borrowers as regards their age, situation, and habits.

This has been promoted by the Boersenverein as evidence that library eLending harms publishing, and that there is no need to expand the offer of eBooks in libraries. It has started to be used internationally as well as a counter-argument to library efforts to improve eLending terms and offers.

But is this really what the evidence presented says? This blog looks at the data, both from the fuller German and shorter English editions.

 

Who Borrows?

The study aims to provide extensive figures about the people who borrow physical books and eBooks, providing a breakdown between people who only borrow one type, and those who borrow both.

This finds that less than 10% of library users only borrow eBooks – an estimated 900 000 according to the analysis. Three quarters only borrow physical books and the rest – around 1.2 million – combine.

Library use for borrowing physical books is most common among people with higher incomes, and with more education (although a higher share of people with only a high-school education use libraries than those with a university education).

There is a similar story for eBooks (although obviously we are talking about small numbers), except in that use of eLending is highest among the richest and the poorest income groups, with only those in the middle borrowing less.

Finally, the study looks in particular at age groups, finding that borrowers both of physical and eBooks tend to be younger than buyers. 29% of physical book borrowers and 27% of eBook borrowers are under 30, while the figures for buyers are 20% in both categories. The trend is reversed for the over-60s.

The analysis leaps to the conclusion that that library users can pay for books, and implies that they shouldn’t be borrowing. Yet this does not hold water. There has been extensive research into the role of library lending in helping people discover new books, and indeed trying a book out before they choose to buy, while the results of the analysis imply that younger borrowers turn into older buyers.

Put simply, the only thing that the survey really shows is that book buying and borrowing go together – something that has been known for a long time.

 

Borrow or Buy?

The research then looks into the behaviour of physical and eBook borrowers in Germany. The headline identified by the Boersenverein is the suggestion that 43% of users of library eLending have reduced or stopped altogether their buying of eBooks since they could start borrowing.

This would be a strong argument, except for the fact that in the following question – what would users of the library eLending offer do if this were to disappear, a full 48% would either buy fewer eBooks, or buy none at all. The analysis does not break down between the share of people who would completely stop buying, and those who had never bought.

These results are certainly confusing, but what they don’t represent is an argument for trying to restrict or harm library eLending. Indeed, it seems that restricting or preventing library eLending would also have a net negative effect on sales of other media.

The study also looks at levels of contentment with the offer of eBooks for lending, and the timeliness of their availability. It finds that 75% of users are happy with the variety on offer and 68% with the speed at which they are available. This is arguably a testimony to the efforts of libraries to provide books – often at very high prices or on restrictive terms. It does not explore whether a wider range of books, available more quickly, could help attract more people into reading.

Finally, the analysis uses the answers to direct questions to suggest that people who borrow books in general, if given a choice, will borrow rather than buying. It also suggests that borrowers in general do not feel like they are in a situation where they can’t afford to buy. Clearly, the questions are leading – will people openly admit to being too poor to buy? What would they have said if they believed that authors should be paid?. Moreover, this doesn’t fit with the evidence that borrowers are in fact more likely to buy books than the rest of the population.

 

Conclusions

Overall, the study is relatively transparent in its objectives from the beginning, and so already needs to be taken with some scepticism. There are also oddities – the whole study assumes that over 10 million people are borrowing from libraries, but German Library Association figures show that only 7.35 million have library cards.

It makes a lot of noise about one or two results, while ignoring others, and makes some big – and unfounded – assumptions that have rightly been challenged by the German Library Association (DBV) in its own response.

It gives no attention to the question of the costs to libraries of acquiring and lending eBooks, although it is to be hoped that there would be consensus that freeing up libraries to expand collections and offer services is desirable.

Fundamentally, the parallels between book buying and book borrowing tendencies across income groups and levels of education – and the fact that book borrowers are also more enthusiastic buyers – only seems to underline that libraries and bookshops can work in synergy.

However, as the DBV points out, this only brings out an uncomfortable truth – one that the study overlooks – that reading (either though buying or borrowing) is less common among those with low incomes and low education.

The real conclusion, perhaps, is the need to do more to reach out to groups who may need support with literacy. Indeed, with 6.2 million adults in Germany struggling to understand texts, there is a real need to focus on whatever works in helping build reading skills, something that a properly supported library system, freed from unnecessary restrictions, is well placed to help with.

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