Reading Up on Digital Disruption

EXTRA Apropos our previous post on the continued vitality of used hardcover and paperback book sales in this otherwise digital age, the folks at OverDrive are out with some data on the flip side of that story. Among the 88,000 schools and libraries worldwide for which OverDrive provides licensed access to e-books, audiobooks, magazines and other print material in digital formats, readers borrowed 555 million digital items in 2022, up a healthy 10% over 2021. The amount and scope of material in circulation also expanded, as OverDrive added 1 million titles to its digital collections from 73 new content partners.

In addition to expanded offerings, OverDrive attributes the rise in digital borrowing to more flexible and affordable access models offered by some publishers, including simultaneous access to e-books (still a sticking point for many publishers), more aggressive promotion of digital access by libraries in response to the Covid pandemic, and providing more tailored, library-specific collections and programs.

Increased reader demand for digital access to collections also played a role in the growth of electronic lending. A separate study published in February 2022 by the not-for-profit research group WordsRated, and involving 17,500 libraries within the U.S., found that in-person visits to brick-and-mortar library locations declined by 21% between 2009 to 2019, and the number of books being borrowed fell by 19%. At the same time, the number of registered borrowers nationwide hit an all-time high during the period of 174 million, or more than half the U.S. population. Borrowers were also more active than ever, checking out an average of 16.9 items, both physical and digital, in 2019, up 11% from 2014.

The number of digital items within library collections also grew rapidly over the 10 years covered by the study and now represent more than half (55%) of all the items in library collections, up from just 1.9% in 2009.

But the increase in electronic borrowing and lending also speaks to a gathering, if belated and still somewhat halting, disruption of the world of letters at the hands of digital technology. Last week, for instance, Apple announced the launch of a series of audiobooks voiced by artificial intelligence-enhanced synthetic voice narration.

As the publishing business consultant Bill Wolfsthal explained in a RightsTech Roundtable webinar last year, AI systems trained on human voices can produce computer-generated speech that sounds nearly indistinguishable from human readers, complete with text-appropriate emphasis, emotion, even accent (Wolfsthal represents Speechki, a startup that provides AI narration services to audiobook publishers). And, at $50 to $100 per book, it is far less expensive to use than hiring human narrators, making the release of audiobook editions of many smaller titles economically viable for the first time. Many journal articles, which previously were rarely made available on audio, also become viable with the use of AI narration.

Apple, in fact, said it expects to focus its AI narration efforts on publishers’ backlist titles that had previously been skipped over for audio release.

Already the fastest growing segment of the publishing business, the new technology promises to further establish audio as a major revenue driver for publishers.

Social media platforms have enabled the emergence of large, connected, online reader communities such as BookTok, that are democratizing and decentralizing the promotion and marketing of books. According to OverDrive, 14,000 libraries hosted their own local digital book clubs in 2022.

Podcasts, often reader-produced and hosted, are also reshaping the marketing of books. Scripted podcasts, meanwhile, are establishing themselves as a popular new form of storytelling with as yet unreckoned implications for print publishing.

Predictably, the flowering of all that new digital activity has not come without controversy. Fearing a loss of high-margin print sales, publishers have sought to put strict limits on digital lending by libraries through the use of restrictive e-book licenses. Those restrictions have lead to clashes both with libraries and with state and local lawmakers looking to mandate broader digital access through public libraries.

Voice actors, meanwhile, have pushed back against the use of AI narration in audiobooks, fearing a loss of employment opportunities.

Publishers have so far successfully fended off e-book lending legislation, but the defeat of those bills is unlikely to be the last, or even close to the last word on the scope and methods of electronic lending and other forms of digital redistribution of e-books and audiobooks. Likewise, the controversy over the use of AI in media applications is only getting started.

The book world, in other words, is beginning to experience many of the same digital growing pains that the worlds of music, movies and the visual arts went through more than a decade ago.

As was the case with those other industries, moreover, most of the impetus for disruption in the book world is coming from users — readers, libraries, downstream licensees and others at the edge of the network — rather than from authors and publishers at the center.

As the music and movie industries also discovered, legal and legislative victories alone are not likely to be enough for publishers to remain in control of their fates.

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