Following extensive discussions, libraries in the Netherlands have come to an agreement with publishers and others about eBook availability in the country.

Published in the Official Journal on 24 October, the Covenant (available in Dutch) promises to ensure that more books are available for e-Lending by libraries, within a shorter period of time.

The government press release suggests that the number of eBooks which libraries can lend could rise from 21 000 to 27 000, with libraries able to add them to their catalogues between six and twelve months after publication.

The deal is also good news for authors, who will be the main beneficiaries of the additional money made available – an additional €3M a year from 2021.

We interviewed Francien van Bohemen, Deputy Director of the Dutch Public Library Association, to find out more about the deal:


Picture of Francien van Bohemen

IFLA: First all, congratulations on getting to an agreement – it looks like a real achievement!

Francien van Bohemen (FvB): Yes, it was quite a complicated thing with seven parties. The whole process took around a year and a half, and it only became clear that we would reach the finish line, with everyone involved, when the minister said she was prepared to put money in the plan. It made everything more relaxed.

We are optimistic that we will get the larger, more modern collection that we’re looking for, and of course happy that authors will be better paid.


IFLA: What had made it so difficult before?

FvB: Dutch libraries had been able to lend quite some eBooks for some time, thanks to licenses the publishers and the Royal Library made. However, the authors, translators and illustrators were not happy about this because of revenue issues . This was important for the minister, who was aware of her role in promoting creativity and literature in the Netherlands, which after all is not a huge language community.

They had a point of course. There was some research recently into incomes in the creative sector, and the picture was not good. The government has cut back a lot on culture in the Netherlands (including commissions and grants), and the average income of writers and other artists has been falling. Indeed, the Social Economic Board has shown that authors on average get less than that provided by minimum income benefits.


IFLA: Was there anything particular about eBooks in this?

FvB: Yes, there was no fixed book price for eBooks, which had allowed the average price to fall to about €6-7. And it’s still not clear how big a share of the cover price goes to authors.

At least with library lending, the rule was that authors would get 25% and publishers 75% of what libraries paid, but there was no way of checking this. And there has been research to show that some authors were not being paid at all for e-book distribution by their publishers. Of course it’s not better with rental platforms – Amazon and Kobo won’t even pay an author until 25% of a book has been read.


IFLA: What was the impact of the VOB vs Stichting Leenrecht Case?

FvB: For us, it was a valuable means of accelerating progress. The one-copy-one-user model advanced by the Court of Justice provided a backstop, a starting point for achieving something more favourable. Clearly, publishers and collecting societies didn’t like the idea of switching to one-copy-one-user (fearing that this could have knock-on effects in the wider market).

I believe that this did help, although admittedly the best solution for libraries would be a mixture of models, according to the type of books. But the publishers and collecting societies argued – successfully of course – for a single model for the sake of simplicity.  


IFLA: So what does the Covenant mean for writers? 

FvB: In short, more money. They – authors, illustrators and translators – now get 50% of the money paid by the Royal Library for eLending, rather than 25% they were supposed to receive through their publisher. This only works for Dutch authors. We’re leaving it to the relevant collecting society to decide how to allocate this money.

This is a big thing for writers. Like elsewhere, while bestselling authors get great contract terms from their publishers, others may not. Of course these contracts are confidential so it’s not possible to study them in detail, but the anecdotal evidence is clear.  


IFLA: Will independent authors gain?

FvB: They can, yes. In the Netherlands, books and eBooks are distributed through the ‘Central Bookhouse’. Small publishers and independent authors can talk to them and make sure their books are included in the catalogue.


IFLA: What does it mean for publishers?

FvB: They don’t lose money at least. The additional money from the government is what makes it possible to split eLending payments 50-50 without the publishers receiving any less – they will get as much as when they were getting 75% of the total under the previous system.  


IFLA: And for libraries?

FvB: We’re optimistic. The additional money is welcome, and now there’s a document, printed in the official journal, with the minister’s engagement, that underlines a desire to make more eBooks available for library lending, in a shorter timeframe. Of course we would have preferred shorter than the 6-12 months contained in the covenant – we argued for 3, as our users want to read the newest books. But it’s a good start!

As for the number of books available, this is going to be the key thing. In the Netherlands, while the Royal Library manages the contracts with the publishers, public libraries make requests for certain books. So we’ll be able to see where there is an ongoing refusal to allow libraries to e-Lend. The figures cited – a rise from 21000 to 27000


IFLA: Is the Covenant binding?

FvB: It isn’t, although the government has added the money to the structural budget from 1 January next year, so everything is in place for it to work*.

The publishers association underlined that they cannot force their members to make books available, or to do so within a given period of time of course. So there is a risk that we won’t see the promised increase in the numbers of books available (or earlier release to libraries). However, if this doesn’t happen, it will show up in the evaluation, and the government will see it. I think this will lead to constructive engagement by everyone.


IFLA: How are payments calculated?

FvB: It’s payment per load, with between €0.40 and €1.25 per loan according to how new the books are. Given that these rates are fixed, it’s going to be important to monitor usage so that we don’t exhaust the budget before the end of the year! There’s no limit on what one author can get either,  


IFLA: Do you think this is a model that could be replicated elsewhere?

FvB: I’m not sure. The Netherlands is very specific, with a tradition of working together, the polder model. Cooperation between the members of the book chain has taken a long time to develop, and you see this in the Covenant, which reflects this balance. Admittedly, it also can make it difficult to take major steps forwards, for example to get to a situation where we have different e-Lending models.  


* The Dutch Royal Library suggests that the Covenant is legally binding, although note that the only commitment by the publishers' association is to make best efforts to make more books available earlier.