Regulars here at TNPS will not have been surprised that Rakuten OverDrive last year surpassed the quarter billion download mark, serving 274 million digital books to eager consumers through its global library distribution service.

While the USA is by far the bigger client country of OverDrive we should remember that the company delivers digital books to Singapore, as noted in the press release, but also to places as improbable as the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East and Rwanda in East Africa.

With that caveat, consider that 2018 saw OverDrive’s highest growth since 2015, with a 22% increase on 2017.

The biggest library downloads went to Toronto in Canada, where 5,6 million downloads were made, with US institutions close behind.

All told some 65 public libraries crossed the one million downloads mark.

This from OverDrive:

  • Total digital checkouts from libraries & schools: 274 million (+22% over 2017, the highest growth rate since 2015)
  • Ebooks borrowed: 185 million (+19%)
  • Audiobooks borrowed: 88 million (+29%, outpacing ebooks for the 5th straight year)
  • Ebook and audiobook holds/wait listed: 107 million (+28%)
  • Children/YA checkouts/holds: 39 million (+27%)
  • 65 public library systems around the world (+12%) with over 1 million digital book checkouts, including 11 over 2 million checkouts, four over 3 million, five over 4 million and two over five million
  • New public library (digital) users: 4 million (+15%)

Most popular ebooks borrowed from libraries in 2018:

  1. Little Fires Everywhereby Celeste Ng (Penguin Press)
  2. The Great Aloneby Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press)
  3. The Woman in the Windowby A.J. Finn (William Morrow)
  4. Before We Were Yoursby Lisa Wingate (Ballantine Books)
  5. Crazy Rich Asiansby Kevin Kwan (Anchor)

Most popular audiobooks borrowed from libraries in 2018

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stoneby J.K. Rowling (Pottermore)
  2. Little Fires Everywhereby Celeste Ng (Penguin Press)
  3. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ckby Mark Manson (HarperAudio)
  4. Ready Player Oneby Ernest Cline (Random House Audio)
  5. A Wrinkle In Timeby Madeleine L’engle (Listening Library)

Top digital books borrowed from libraries by genre:

Read more from OverDrive here.

But perhaps the more interesting story here is the blow these numbers deliver to the “people are reading less” brigade who insist that reading is a dying art and publishers are an endangered species.

In November Porter Anderson and Jane Friedman took a look at the fallacious “falling fiction sales” debate over at The Hot Sheet. I took a look at their argument and posited some perspectives of my own:

Falling Fiction Sales -Why Is It Happening? – The Hot Sheet Reviewed – 14 November edition

I didn’t stress digital libraries too much here as I’d already done so on many previous occasions.

OverDrive clocks 220,000 audiobook downloads a day. On target for 80 million audio downloads this year that won’t be counted by Data Guy’s BookStat

OverDrive’s Libby app use growing at 30% per month but digital library downloads continue to be ignored by the data gurus

But now we have the final numbers from Rakuten OverDrive let’s just remind ourselves that none of these numbers are included in the Nielsen statistics we are given about the US book market and none of these numbers are included in the BookStat and Author Earnings numbers provided by Data Guy.

Which is fair enough for Nielsen, which makes no secret of the fact that its statistics are derived from a limited range of sources.

Data Guy’s BookStat on the other hand claims to track every single online book purchase, and for good measure throws in non-purchases like Kindle Unlimited subscription reads, which of course are no more sales than digital library downloads are sales.

But curiously Data Gut chooses to totally ignore digital library downloads when telling us about the ebook and audiobook market.

Back in the days of Author Earnings this deliberate omission in the download numbers was justified by the argument that authors didn’t get paid by libraries. That of course was never true, as libraries have to pay hard cash to publishers and authors for the books they make available.

Once Author Earnings morphed into BookStat the omission of digital library downloads became all the more glaring as we were now supposedly being shown a super-accurate overview of the digital book market, with every online purchase and download tracked.

The trouble there is that when you casually ignore over 274 million digital downloads (over because there are also countless other digital library suppliers also seeing millions of downloads) it does call into question the value of the numbers that are offered.

Data Guy tries to blur the argument by saying that, because library downloads are free at the point of consumption they are on par with the free ebooks downloaded on Amazon, Apple, et al.

But that’s s false comparison because a free ebook downloaded on Amazon brings no direct financial benefit to the publisher. It is just that: free. A library download can only happen after the publisher has been prepaid an agreed sum by the library.

So let’s remind ourselves of the numbers being ignored here. 274 million digital downloads. Not all in the US, of course, but certainly the bulk of them will have happened in America.

Ponder this: that’s 750,000 digital book downloads per day going uncounted by BookStat and Nielsen.

That’s over 506,000 ebook downloads a day going unremarked by Nielsen and BookStat.

That’s 241,000 audiobook downloads a day going unremarked by Nielsen and BookStat.

And there’s another story here too. The impact Rakuten OverDrive is having on Amazon. Put simply, every digital book downloaded at a digital library is a book not bought and downloaded on Amazon. A book that instead generated a payment for OverDrive or whichever distributor it may have been.

No wonder Amazon, at Digital Book World 2018, was anxiously telling publishers sales were down and digital libraries were to blame.

Digital library downloads are hurting Amazon’s bottom line. The Hot Sheet reviewed

Not that Rakuten OverDrive is going to topple Amazon’s supremacy in the digital books arena, of course, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Rakuten owns both OverDrive and the ebook retailer Kobo, which last year partnered with WalMart to deliver ebooks to an even wider audience.

Which begs the question whether, when we talk about the US ebook and audiobook market, we really should be talking Rakuten as the second biggest digital player, not Apple.