Last week The Guardian published a very interesting article on e-book lending in the UK, Pay us for library ebook loans, say authors which highlighted how the growing use of e-books is shaking up some pretty fundamental assumptions about the book business.

At the heart of The Guardian’s article is a call from the Society of Authors for the government-funded Public Lending Right (PLR) scheme, under which an author receives 6.05p every time one of their print books is borrowed from a public library, to be extended to cover e-books. Last year the office of the PLR, which is funded by an annual grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, distributed £6.5 million to authors. And despite legal provision being made for it in the Digital Economy Act of 2010, the PLR still doesn’t pay out royalties on e-books or audiobooks.

The Society of Authors is evidently worried that without a system set in place to compensate authors for e-book lending, their members will lose out when e-books – as it has so often been predicted – begin to take a sizable bite out of the physical book borrowing market. This argument does rely on the assumption that library book lending is a zero sum game. Does every e-book borrowed really mean that a corresponding physical book remains on the shelf? Without data that categorically tells us that e-book lending is subtractive or additive to physical book lending it’s impossible to tell. But either way it’s easy to see why the Society of Authors views the refusal of the DCMS to extend the PLR as being a lost opportunity to its members.

The other thought that struck me when reading this article was whether the whole debate really was about libraries, or rather highlighted the greyer areas of digital fulfilment.

When a library buys a copy of physical book, a proportion of the price it pays for the book passes to the publisher as a royalty, of which the author gets their contracted amount. From this moment on, the royalty payments to the author on this copy are funded by central government via the PLR, representing no extra cost to the publisher, library or borrower.

With e-books, however, many libraries have neither the time nor resources to build significant digital collections, nor the technology platforms required to put them into users’ hands. Instead these libraries have turned to services like Overdrive or e-book aggregators, which make digital collections available to libraries on a subscription basis. This move away from ownership towards access is great for the convenience of libraries and borrowers, but much more complicated from a royalties standpoint.

If a library is loaning out books it rents rather than owns, and which have been made available for profit via a private company, then it is reasonable to ask why should central government funds should pay for their use? In cases like this, it’s possible to argue that the responsibility lies with aggregators – who are themselves locked in discussions with publishers as to whether the license to lend an individual e-book is a finite or infinite agreement.

If nothing else, this case highlights how the gradual shift away from ownership towards access presents publishing businesses with exciting new sources of revenue in the medium to long-term but much short-term wrangling and uncertainty. A key example of this is Bilbary Books, an e-book sales and lending start-up led by former Waterstone’s managing director, Tim Coates. It has yet to launch in the UK, but when it does aims to make 750,000 titles available, and has promised to fill what it sees as gaps in UK library provision it blames on historic under-investment.

We just have to hope that authors – presently caught in the middle of this debate with little information as to how their royalties will be funded, calculated and paid out – get paid their due in the end.