The New York Public Library checks out e-commerce

Patrons can buy books from its web catalog through an agreement with online bookstores.

Amy Dusto

The New York Public Library recently began testing selling books from its web site. The pilot project enables library cardholders to buy hard copies and electronic versions of books in its catalog from such online booksellers as Amazon.com Inc., Barnes & Noble Inc. and Powell’s City of Books, an independent bookseller based in Oregon.

The library receives a royalty payment on each sale through its catalog with the rest going to the bookseller, says Christopher Platt, director of the library’s technical services organization, BookOps, which also works with the Brooklyn Public Library. Members pay the standard retail price of the book plus shipping fees.

“Especially as physical bookstores close, we see an opportunity for public libraries to provide real value to dedicated readers,” Platt says. “For the library patrons who want to discover a book, recommend it, engage with others about it, check it out from the library to read or even buy it to own—we want the library to be a jumping-off point.”

The library views book selling as an added service to readers who would rather purchase a book than wait to check it out if there is a waiting list for a popular title or for those who like a title so much they want to add it to their personal collections, Platt says.

The New York Public Library, which is the nation’s largest library system, debuted the service in mid-May, selling only Simon & Schuster e-books, Platt says. By the end of the summer, patrons will be able to buy any e-book in the library’s catalog, he says. By the end of July, they’ll also be able to buy physical books, DVDs and CDs, and have an option to buy online from a local bookseller if they wish to support their neighborhood bookstores.

Clicking on the “Buy now” button for the book “Witches: The absolutely true tale of disaster in Salem” in the catalog, for example, pops up a window with links to the book’s product page on the e-commerce sites of three retailers: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s City of Books. The pop-up window says “A portion of this purchase goes to support your library.” Platt did not say how much the library receives per purchase.

None of the above three retailers immediately responded to a request for comment.

The pilot book-selling service uses the library’s online catalog, Bibliocommons, and requires shoppers to have a valid library card, Platt says. This allows them to manage their borrowed and purchased books within their library accounts.

Roughly 2,000 U.S. libraries that lend digital content to their patrons through media console provider OverDrive Inc. have begun offering an option to buy some titles, an OverDrive spokesman says. The libraries collect an affiliate marketing fee from the retailer that the customer buys from, usually between $0.01 and $0.10 per transaction, he says.


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