E-book plan spells trouble for public libraries

Ministers appear poised to reject calls to allow public libraries to charge for e-books - raising fresh fears that more library will close.

Officially, a review will be carried out, led by the publisher William Sieghart, who will head a panel including Joanna Trollope, the author, and Roly Keating, chief executive of the British Library. But Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, suggested his preference was for e-books to be available free from every library, as an alternative to printed books.

He said: "E-lending is currently in its infancy, but growing fast. Just as e-readers are transforming the way people access books, e-lending could help transform the way people use libraries. We can help influence the growth of e-lending to ensure that libraries, authors, publishers and the public all benefit."

Publishers were wary about making their books available for e-lending, which meant provision was currently "patchy", he said, even in libraries with modern technology.

Earlier this year, Justin Tomlinson, a Conservative backbench MP, warned that the future was bleak for town hall libraries unless they were allowed to charge for e-books. Ministers were told that local councils that had pioneered e-lending had little stock, because the big six publishers would not release the books.

That was, primarily, because the public lending rights (PLR) arrangement which gives publishers and authors 6p every time a physical book is lent out does not apply to e-books.

Tomlinson proposed a small charge for e-books, with the money generated ring-fenced and shared between the publishers, authors and libraries. He also argued that e-books should be lent only through "a physical visit to the library", to protect library usage.

But it appeared likely that the review, for the department for culture, media and sport (DCMS), will lead to borrowers being able to make "e-loans" remotely, via their home computer or tablet.

That is likely to trigger protests from publishers, which fear that e-lending will lead to a drop in sales.

Richard Mollett, of the Publishers Association, said: "When it's as easy to buy a book as to click a button and borrow one, a lot more people are going to take the borrowing option. That has serious implications for authors and their royalties, booksellers and publishers.".

The review will consider:

* the benefits of e-lending

* the current nature and level of e-lending and projection of future demand

* the barriers to supply of e-books to libraries

* the possible consequences of e-lending, including the long term impact on library premises, the effect on publishers and the impact on those who cannot keep up with changes in technology.