From the ALA’s #eBooksforAll campaign

If you stopped by Amazon today to buy an ebook copy of Vendetta in Death, the latest J.D. Robb book that currently sits atop the New York Times Best Sellers list, it would cost you $14 and it would be all yours to read and reread as many times as you like. If the library went to OverDrive (the company that supplies ebooks for the Ohio Digital Library), an ebook copy of Vendetta in Death would cost $60 and we would only own it for two years or until it got checked out 52 times. Now, given the fact ebooks check out for 21 days, and most people do not return books early even if they are done with them, 79% of books never make it 52 checkouts, the average being closer to 11.5 checkouts by the end of two years.

This is the standard price that libraries pay for ebooks from Macmillan Publishers and their imprints, such as Tor, the biggest publisher of science fiction and fantasy. And it’s about to get worse. Starting November 1, libraries will be allowed to purchase only one ebook copy of new Macmillan titles for the first eight weeks of their release. That’s one book for the entire Ohio Digital Library, which serves 177 libraries around the state. So, that’s one copy of the new Nora Roberts, Lisa Scottoline, Brandon Sanderson, Liane Moriarty, Kristin Hannah, Linda Castillo, C.J. Box, Iris Johansen, Jeffrey Archer, and many other extremely popular authors for the first two months of a book’s release. After which, libraries can pay $60 apiece to own more copies for two years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first.

While Macmillan is the only publisher currently embargoing sales of ebooks to libraries, most of the other Big five publishers aren’t really cutting us a break, either. Penguin Random House, the biggest publisher in the US, generally charges libraries $55 to own a book for two years. Some of their older titles cost less, but are still usually only available for a two year lease. Hachette used to sell a lot of their new books for around $78, and the library owned them forever. Now they charge $65, and we own them for only two years. Simon and Schuster has several different prices for books, but many of their new adult titles cost over $50 for two years.

The idea behind only selling ebooks to libraries for a limited time started with HarperCollins back in 2011 when they pointed out that ebooks never get damaged or lost, whereas physical copies occasionally need replaced. They set out a model in which they charged libraries pretty much the same price as anyone else, but after 26 checkouts, the library needed to repurchase the item. For instance, the new Karin Slaughter book, The Last Widow, is $27 for 26 checkouts, no matter how long it takes to get to 26 checkouts, a common price for HarperCollins books. (See a complete list of current lending models here.)

However, the recent decision from Macmillan to embargo new ebooks is a move no other publisher is making at this point. (It should be pointed out that this only applies to ebooks, as e-audiobooks are another matter. Some authors have exclusive deals with Amazon’s Audible service, so those books are not available for libraries to buy as e-audio, period. Blackstone Audio also recently announced a three-month embargo of sales to libraries for some new titles.) In the past, if the library’s book supplier didn’t have a book available for us to buy, the library could go to a store and buy it. But publishers control who can sell and purchase their ebooks, so if they choose to not make something available to libraries, it is simply unavailable and there is no second option.

The CEO of Macmillan, John Sargent, claims that libraries are “cannibalizing” ebook sales. His thinking is that if patrons see long holds lists at the library, they will become impatient and buy the book instead. There are several problems with this thinking, however. First of all, it assumes that library patrons aren’t patient enough to wait on a hold and read something else in the meantime. It also assumes that they can afford to buy the book. And it assumes that patrons won’t opt to read the hardback rather than wait on the ebook.

Possibly the most important assumption to address is that library patrons are not also book buyers. Library Journal’s 2019 generational reading survey shows that 42% of those surveyed purchased a book they first read at the library, and 70% bought a book by an author they discovered at the library. Libraries have always been great advertisement for books and authors, not to mention being significant book buyers ourselves. Libraries are not even free advertising for authors, since we buy the book. In essence, we’re paying publishers for the opportunity to advertise their books.

But more importantly than driving and contributing to sales, public libraries have always tried to serve their mission of putting books in the hands of anyone who wants them, regardless of their ability to pay. Ebooks play a growing role in helping people who cannot otherwise afford books get the items they need. No longer do people need to find potentially expensive transportation to get to the library, and then possibly not have a way to return what they have checked out on the due date and end up with fines.

Ebooks are also important for people with a variety of disabilities. Because the size of the text of an ebook can be changed, every ebook is also a large print book. Most ereaders and ereader software include special font options to help dyslexic readers. And because tablets, ereaders, phones, and even some laptops are lighter and easier to hold than a hardcover, they’re great for people with certain physical issues, such as arthritis.

The simple fact is, ebooks are an amazing invention, and public libraries want to offer them to their patrons. However, our budgets are not increasing, while expensive ebooks are an ever increasingly large percentage of our circulation. For instance, here at North Canton, digital materials now make up 13% of our circulation (up from 10% last year), but hardcopies typically remain cheaper. (To see the stunning comparison of prices, Librarian Jennifer Rothschild has a remarkable thread on Twitter comparing prices for current bestsellers.)

This is also why we cannot purchase as many patron requests for ebooks as we’d like. Taking August as an example, 167 books were recommended for purchase by NCPL patrons on the Ohio Digital Library website. (This includes ebooks and e-audio, Adult, Teen, and Children’s.) The total cost of those books is $5,894.20, which is more than twice our monthly budget for buying ebooks and e-audio.

So what can libraries and the people who use libraries do about this? Well, the American Library Association is trying a couple of different approaches. They recently launched a petition directed at Macmillan’s CEO asking the publisher to reconsider their embargo. If you’re interested in knowing more about it, or signing it, that is here.  They are also encouraging the use of the hashtag #eBooksforAll. And at their summer conference, the ALA decided to speak to Congress about getting involved with library ebook pricing. There’s no word on when that will happen, but it’s an effort worth tracking. The other thing we Librarians would ask of patrons is to be patient with us. We want you to have the books you want in the format you want them without having to wait an excessive amount of time. Given the constraints we’re working under, I promise, we’re doing the best we can.


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