Library ebooks are not free

Those of you not in the library world probably don’t know about the contretemps currently roiling the industry.

Library users don’t see how much ebooks cost for libraries. I order them as part of my job, and I’ve never quite gotten over the sticker shock of some costing as much as $90 each. And that’s just for a license of 2 years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first (almost always the 2 years).

Still, libraries will buy as many as they can because ebooks and eaudiobooks are only growing in popularity. Given the limited collection budget for most libraries, now you understand if you’ve ever placed a hold on a library ebook and found yourself #237 on the waiting list for the whole consortium of libraries sharing access to that ebook. Pity the poor souls who want to read Daniel Silva’s latest:

But guess what: that wait time is about to get a lot longer.

On July 25, John Sargent, CEO of the publisher Macmillan, announced that Macmillan would make only one ebook version of their new titles available to each library system for the first eight weeks after publication. This is meant to frustrate library users enough to where they will give up and buy the ebook or print version rather than wait so long. And perhaps they will: more power to any book buyer.

But if you’re thinking, “One copy for a whole library system, which can contain dozens of libraries and thousands of users, sounds like a terrible idea,” then you are correct.

Sargent claims libraries are “cannibalizing sales” based on several factors:

“a seamless delivery of ebooks to reading devices and apps”

He should sit at the Info Desk with me and watch me help an elderly technophobic patron get library ebooks onto their Kindle.

“the active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers”

This might blow his mind, but people can be both purchasers and borrowers at the same time and often are, in the case of books.

“apps that support lending across libraries regardless of residence”

If he’s talking about sharing among a regional consortium of libraries, then yeah, that’s the point. The one my library is in consists of over 100 public and school libraries in and near the Chicago area that share a collection of ebooks and audiobooks, and do so mostly to share the enormous cost of buying ebooks. But it’s not like I can borrow from NYPL’s collection, and I can’t even access any extra copies another library in the consortium purchases.

Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, one of the largest distributors of ebooks to libraries, responded to Sargent’s specious reasoning and counterproductive pricing with appropriate skepticism:

For Macmillan to paint themselves as victims, in a reality they created, is dystopian. Not only dystopian, it is victim blaming – as librarians are the victims of this flawed logic. It blames public libraries and librarians for the work they do to promote reading, books, authors and help sell the publishers’ products. It blames libraries for the millions of dollars they spend on Macmillan’s product, encouraging the reading of Macmillan books and authors.

And perhaps most importantly:

There is zero acknowledgement by Macmillan of the reality that library ebook readers are Macmillan readers and customers. The high degree of overlap between library users and book buyers is well documented. Libraries build audiences for authors and books, promote reading and discovery, and are a most trusted source for recommendation on what to read next.

Internet-famous librarian (and excellent newsletter writer) Jessamyn West wrote a column for CNN summing up this imbroglio nicely. In “Libraries are fighting to preserve your right to borrow e-books”, she brings the heat right away:

Librarians to publishers: Please take our money. Publishers to librarians: Drop dead.

Then gets to the crux of the issue:

As publishers struggle with the continuing shake-up of their business models, and work to find practical approaches to managing digital content in a marketplace overwhelmingly dominated by Amazon, libraries are being portrayed as a problem, not a solution. Libraries agree there’s a problem — but we know it’s not us.

The craziest thing about Sargent’s memo isn’t everything I’ve mentioned already; it’s that Amazon isn’t mentioned once.

But instead of finding a way to work with libraries on an equitable win-win solution, Macmillan implemented a new and confusing model and blamed libraries for being successful at encouraging people to read their books.

The point here isn’t to self-congratulate libraries. It’s to illustrate that Macmillan’s new scheme alienates the very people and cultural institutions that buy their books and get other people to read and buy them.

Meanwhile, can I interest you in Libby?

12 responses to “Library ebooks are not free”

  1. Joe Van Cleave Avatar

    Sounds like it would be cheaper for libraries to buy paper books.

    1. And we do, but digital titles have gotten more and more popular, and libraries should be responsive to the desires of their populations. As someone who uses both, paper and digital aren’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

      1. A few years ago, a freshman came into our college library. When I told her that one of our online databases would likely provide the best, most up-to-date information for her research, she almost snarled at me, saying she wanted a REAL book, something she could hold in her hand. It was one of the most heart-warming moments that a modern librarian can experience.

        Still, I just disassembled one more section of shelves, last Friday. The bitter reality is that our students want more desk space for their laptops and fewer bookshelves. An ebook version of “War and Peace” weighs nothing, unlike the hard copy which is heavy and bulky. However, it also costs nothing to release unlimited copies for circulation, and that runs contrary to the theology of the traditional publishing business. Macmillan (et. al.) are ignoring the “supply and demand” tenets of their monetary religion.

        I, too, deal with the business side of providing ebook services. My favorite frame of reference for the invoices I pay is how many brand new Mini Coopers could be bought for the price of one year’s access fee. We’re currently using a service from EBSCO, which has a broad selection but a clunky interface, and just added OverDrive, which has a good interface but an as-yet-limited selection.

        1. I prefer print books to ebooks, so I always appreciate patrons of all ages with the same preference, even if they say it almost apologetically. Good on that girl for really owning it. There are many reasons in favor of print as a superior technology, chief among them for me being that I prefer my reading not to be data-mined by tech conglomerates.

          Circulation in public libraries is trending downward across the board, but study space is in demand, at least in my library. Yet with e-titles plateauing, we might just be in a nice pocket of equilibrium, where you can choose several ways of consuming books.

  2. I’m an avid user of our library. I used the library when I was a kid. The habits I learned them follow me now. Access to ebooks and audiobooks are an excellent way to read and are sometimes more convenient than print books. As a runner, I find the audio format a great way to put my “reading” to a new venue. I can’t believe a publisher would oppose that. Fact is, I will often go out and buy the book after listening to it.

    Now… tell me about this Libby.

    1. Great to hear, Michael! I too love audiobooks, and Libby is one of the more popular apps for accessing them through your library. I find it very easy to use. It’s made by OverDrive, which I’m assuming your library would have access to but you’d have to check.

      You’re one of the many people who buy and borrow books, but Macmillan is now considering you a threat to business. All the more frustrating that ebooks technologically speaking can be copied infinitely at no cost, so limiting us to just one is just shooting themselves in the foot. They’re also just leaving money on the table.

      Sidenote: can I ask how you found this blog?

  3. Morning Chad. I use Overdrive now. I didn’t set up the Libby app because I wasn’t sure if it was really any better or different from the one I use now.

    I shifted to e-books because my bookshelves were sagging badly. The digital versions take no more space than the little device I keep them on. They also make library borrowing a whole lot easier. Of course nothing can replace the feel, smell and look of a physical book, but that’s another story. I do still have physical books, but I limit them to certain authors and books that are special to me. I’m sure the day will come when I can no longer access my digital books, but until then…

    I found you on the typeosphere blog

  4. To me ebooks are only good for reading out of print books that many libraries do not have. I’d still rather read a real book than a digitized copy that takes longer to read is harder on ones eyes regardless of their age. Sure seems more economical for libraries to use real books than pay the outlandish subscription costs. The public libraries around here are always crying about their low budgets. Save money and use real books or charge for ebooks.

    1. Charging for access to books in any format is antithetical to the purpose of libraries. Buying print versions of the many books that James Patterson, David Baldacci, and other author machines churn out multiple times a year costs an arm and a leg too, but we get them because they’re popular. Libraries wouldn’t get e-content at all if there weren’t demand for them, so we’re kinda stuck. Some people prefer them for good reasons: easier for traveling, searchable, text enlargement, etc. I’m not one of those people but I support them regardless.

  5. […] In the debate about library ebooks, one of the key points ignored by publishers is that there is broad overlap between library users and book buyers. More than that, the relationship between libraries/librarians and bookstores/authors is symbiotic. We may have different priorities, but I believe we’re on the same team and help each other immensely. […]

  6. […] Library ebooks are not free […]