“As libraries face rising demand for digital content of all types, flexible licensing and contract terms would allow patrons to consume the media they want, when they want it, while enabling libraries to more evenly balance their budgets.”

Kathi Inman Berens, Ph.D.

Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 reportThe Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 report released by the American Library Association (ALA) in December 2023 offers an insightful overview of the public library ebook ecosystem, and the various challenges libraries face in building digital collections for their patrons. From a variety of licensing models, terms, and prices, to some titles being completely unavailable in digital formats due to exclusive partnerships, many public libraries’ digital collections are often either limited to bestsellers, or a more diverse selection with restrictive borrowing limits.

As a result, equitable access is often constrained — whether by long wait lists, limited budgets, or both. Meanwhile, the demand for digital content continues to grow in public and school libraries around the world.

OverDrive, which serves more than 88,000 libraries and schools in 109 countries worldwide, reported +12% growth in ebooks borrowed in 2023, and +14% specifically for comics and graphic novels. Similarly, Comics Plus saw +34% growth last year across the 3,000+ libraries and schools that offer it, many in addition to their OverDrive and Sora collections. Interestingly, the top 5 comics were very different between the two platforms, most likely for two very important reasons: availability and affordability.

OverDrive Top 5 Comics in 2023

  • Big Nate (Andrews McMeel)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid (ABRAMS)
  • Baby-Sitters Club Graphix (Scholastic)
  • Dog Man (Scholastic)
  • Heartstopper (Hodder)

Comics Plus Top 5 Comics in 2023

Diversifying Digital Collections Beyond Bestsellers

“The type of lending/licensing model available for a given book depends on the publisher, as well as distributors/aggregators. Notably, libraries are typically required to pay 3–4 times the consumer price for an ebook or audiobook license of a popular title, even if that license later expires.”

Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 (page 6)

When building a digital collection that serves a community’s varied needs, librarians face a number of decisions to manage limited budgets, guided by collection development policies, patron demand, and the vendors they work with. Because of the unique limitations and higher costs for most ebook licenses (as compared to print purchases), patron demand often ends up being a more influential factor, which paradoxically leads to libraries offering far fewer options in a digital collection than in print, or enforcing borrowing limits on larger collections that effectively establish personal wait lists.

For every additional single-user license a library acquires of bestsellers like Big Nate or Diary of a Wimpy Kid to meet short-term demand and keep hold ratios down, it’s one fewer license they’ll acquire for a midlist or backlist title that may have less overall demand but appeal to different readers. A collection dominated by bestsellers is one that prioritizes a small percentage of the newest releases for a small percentage of a library’s potential readers. Even worse, thanks to restrictive licenses, bestsellers can end up dominating an inordinate percentage of a library’s budget, while under-serving readers with other interests.

Can a library realistically expand and diversify their digital collections while still meeting demand for bestsellers, though?

While single-user licenses are the most common way for libraries to add ebooks to their digital collections, it’s not the only licensing model available to them.

“In 2021, Big 5 titles accounted for 91% of bestselling adult hardcover sales and 77.4% of bestselling adult paperback sales.”

Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 (page 8)

Most media coverage of ebooks and libraries focuses on the “Big 5” publishers and their metered licensing models that not only make their ebooks significantly more expensive than print editions, but also expire and need to be renewed, usually every one or two years or after a specific number of checkouts. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of bestsellers are published by those five publishers, so libraries’ digital collections are effectively dominated by a handful of corporate publishers with the most expensive licenses, which need to be renewed periodically to remain in the library’s collection.

Titles from these five large publishers get the most marketing buzz and media coverage — not to mention free reviews and merchandising from librarians and libraries — creating demand that helps them become (and occasionally remain) bestsellers. Meanwhile, there are way more books published every month from dozens of other publishers in a wide range of categories that are just as good, and appeal to a wider range of readers who may not care about the latest bestsellers.

And then there’s the ever-growing backlist of titles that were published a year ago, or five years ago, most of which never hit a bestseller list but have distinct audiences who are often underserved in libraries’ digital collections for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason, though, is usually the cost of single-user licenses and the desire to keep hold ratios down on the most popular books.

  • What’s an equitable hold ratio for a bestseller vs. a midlist title?
  • What’s the hold ratio for a book that’s not available in a digital collection?
  • How well are readers of various genres that don’t typically land on mainstream bestseller lists being served in a digital collection that prioritizes bestsellers?

Most importantly, how does a library prioritize which readers deserve equitable access to ebooks, and which ones don’t?

Unlimited, Simultaneous Access and Library-Friendly Licensing

“The ability to provide instant access to digital materials is a key differentiator for Comics Plus. Instant access establishes credibility for Comics Plus among Gen Z patrons using school libraries and who are accustomed to Amazon’s Comixology or apps like MangaFox, Webtoon, and CrunchyRoll, subscription services that provide access to manga and anime.”

Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 (page 14)

Read All The Comics!Comics and manga have been one of the best selling categories in books the past few years, particularly with younger readers. Looking back at the top 5 comics on OverDrive and Comics Plus last year highlights something important about licensing models. All but a couple of the titles on both lists are related to well-known multimedia franchises, but four of OverDrive’s titles aren’t available on Comics Plus because their publishers don’t make their titles available via unlimited, simultaneous access licenses.

Milk & Mocha and Emotions Explained With Buff Dudes didn’t hit any mainstream bestseller lists, but they both circulated more than any single volume of Big Nate on Comics Plus, which was our most popular overall series last year. According to Worldcat, there are print copies of Milk & Mocha in 60 libraries, while Emotions Explained With Buff Dudes is in 159 libraries. Meanwhile, the most recent Big Nate is available in 706 libraries.

A library building a collection based on bestsellers is not only unlikely to have Milk & Mocha or Emotions Explained With Buff Dudes available as an ebook, many are unlikely to have them available in print, either. And yet, there’s obviously an audience for both of them in libraries and schools with Comics Plus, where readers were able to discover and read them without a wait list or juggling borrowing limits, and not a single library had to increase their digital budget to support that unexpected demand.

Going deeper and looking at the top 25 titles on Comics Plus in 2023, there are more examples of midlist and deep backlist that circulated as well or better than the more widely known titles in the collection:

In particular, the bilingual edition of Quince has been in our Top 25 every year (Top 10 in 2021), despite being published by a small indie press in 2020 and having no traditional print distribution. Its print edition is only in 50 libraries.

Unlimited, simultaneous access also means not having to choose between the latest bestsellers or the midlist and ever-growing backlist, so more readers are more likely to find something of interest to them. Notably, 72% of the 20,000+ titles that were checked out at least once on Comics Plus in 2023 were published before 2022.

Comics Plus is proof that libraries can affordably expand and diversify their digital collections to better serve more readers — and more than 3,000 in the US and around the world are doing exactly that.

Read All The Comics!

With Comics Plus, schools and libraries can offer readers unlimited access to thousands of digital comics, graphic novels, and manga from popular publishers like ABDO, Andrews McMeel, BOOM! Studios, Capstone, Dark Horse, Europe Comics, Fantagraphics, Humanoids, Image Comics, Kodansha, Lerner, Manga Classics, Oni Press, Papercutz, Tokyopop, TOON Books, UDON Entertainment, Yen Press, and dozens more.

No holds, wait lists, or monthly borrowing limits — all at a price that won’t break your materials budget.

Learn more at comicsplusapp.com and sign up for a free demo account.

Read all the comics!

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Chief Content Officer for LibraryPass. Previously, he was also project lead for the Panorama Project; publisher & marketing director for Writer’s Digest; director, content strategy & audience development for Library Journal & School Library Journal; and founding director of programming & business development for Digital Book World.