What’s the deal with ebooks?

Why doesn’t the library own more ebooks?  Why is a favorite author missing from the collection?  Why won’t a particular ebook work on a particular device?  The answer to all of these questions lies in the complicated relationship between libraries and publishers.

Publishers and libraries share the common goal of putting books in your hands, but for different reasons.  Libraries are based on the idea that free access to information is vital for an educated, democratic society.  (This is something most librarians are very passionate about.)  Publishers want to make money, and as much of it as possible.  Publishing is a business, and the people in the publishing industry deserve to be paid for the work they do.  The problem is when our different missions bring us into conflict with each other.

There is a longstanding assumption in the publishing world that libraries lending free books, and especially ebooks, cuts into the profit margins of the publishers.  While this sounds reasonable, a number of studies have shown that library lending actually increases sales.  In a survey last year, 85% of ebook borrowers said they used their library to discover new writers or try out new genres.  69% went on to purchase other titles by those same authors, while 36% purchased a copy of the same ebook title they had borrowed.

Unfortunately, the idea that libraries are stealing sales persists.  The publishing industry is dominated by five major companies, or as they are known in the library world, the Big Five.  These are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster.  Simon & Schuster is still experimenting with selling ebooks to libraries, and only a dozen titles are available for purchase.  Of the rest, only Random House division of Penguin-Random House will sell ebooks to libraries without circulation or purchasing restrictions.  Many libraries avoid buying ebooks from the other major companies because of the restrictions those companies have imposed.

What are these restrictions?  To begin with, Hachette and Macmillan do not allow consortial purchasing.  This means that copies cannot be purchased for the collection most Kentucky public libraries share through Kentucky Libraries Unbound.  BCPL had to setup a separate collection in Unbound to purchase these titles.  They can only be seen after logging in with a BCPL library card; otherwise, they are invisible.

Then there are the circulation restrictions.  When a library purchases a title from HarperCollins, it can only be checked out 26 times.  After that, the library has to buy a new copy.  Titles from Simon & Schuster and the Penguin division of Penguin-Random House expire after 12 months and must be repurchased.  In an example of the worst of both worlds, Macmillan titles can only circulate 52 times or 24 months, whichever comes first.

That just leaves the Random House division, which is continuing their policies from before their merger with Penguin.  Feeling that they needed to do something to make up for the sales they believe they’re losing, Random House increased the price of ebooks sold to libraries by an average of 300%.  (A few titles went up as much as 700%.)  This means that Jonathan Kellerman’s Killer, which sells to individuals through Amazon for $10.99, costs libraries $84 per copy.  In an era of dwindling budgets, we can only afford so many copies.

There is also the issue of “copies” in the first place.  Restricting ebooks to one person at a time is a model the publishers have imposed.  They have experimented with allowing libraries to pay an annual subscription rate for a collection of ebooks with unlimited checkouts, but that model hasn’t taken off.  Finally, there is the issue of DRM.  Digital rights management, or DRM, refers to the anti-piracy measures publishers use to prevent ebooks from being copied.  The pirates quickly find ways around it, of course, while legitimate users struggle with ebooks that work on this device, but not that one, or that only work with certain software and authorizations.  At best, for most of us DRM is an annoyance, but at worst it can prevent people from getting the books they want to read.

In short, there is constant tension between the libraries’ desire to use ebook technology to expand free access to books, and the publisher’s desire to limit ebook technology for libraries, in an attempt to protect profits.  Until some sort of accommodation can be reached, these desires will continue to collide, resulting in frustration for the readers.


Jennifer Gregory has been a librarian for fifteen years. She passed through jobs in archives, cataloging, reference, preservation and administration at various public and academic libraries, before becoming the Digital Services Librarian at BCPL, where she manages digital media collections for both Boone County and the state of Kentucky.

Libraries today are about people, not books – part two

Becky Kempf, Public Relations Coordinator
This is part two of a blog post on how the main focus of libraries has changed from books to being primarily about people (read part one here). Libraries today are changing almost as fast as technology. Part of it is because we’ve always been in the business of information and our mission is to provide you with the most accurate, up-to-date information available. This includes keeping up with the latest technology. Library catalogs are no longer on cards in drawers and there aren’t pockets for checkout slips in our books anymore. These days, because of RFD technology, you just scan your books and card at our self-check stations and you are good go!  You can still check out traditional books at Boone County Public Library, but you can also check out eBooks, Nooks, iPads, laptops and video games. You can even download free music and stream videos. (Did you know that some libraries check out fishing poles, cake pans, and tools?)

Library buildings are getting bigger too and if you’ve been in one lately, you know it’s not to hold more books. Libraries are getting bigger to hold more people!  We aren’t just in the business of books and information anymore, we’re in the business of people – of communities. Libraries today look hard at their communities and seek to fill in the gaps. Each library is a little different because they reflect the needs and wants of the people in their community. That’s what we do at Boone County Public Library, we look at what you want and try to provide it for you, whether it is answers to questions, resume-writing help or even fishing poles!  I asked some of my co-workers why they like working at the Library – what keeps them coming back day after day. If you‘ve been following this blog, you know that all of their answers lead back to people – serving people – serving you!

Shaun Davidson, Adult Programmer
I love that the Library brings people together to experience activities and events that are unique to Boone County. There is truly always something going on! I especially enjoy our free concert series, which is one of the very few places, if not the ONLY place in the county, to hear high caliber live music in styles ranging from classical to bluegrass. 

Jasbir Chahal, Branch Manager, Florence Branch
I love working at the Library because I find helping people very satisfying and rewarding. When a  customer walks in the door with a confused and scared look because he has been told that the only way he can apply for a job is online and he has no idea how to do it – we help him. We sit down and walk through the job application process together. Then when he comes back in, a few weeks or months later, and tells us he got the job – it makes it all worthwhile.

Another example –A veteran visited our branch and he was down, physically and mentally. We provided a little TLC and told him about agencies that could help him. The customer returned a year later and told us that he got the help he needed at the VA hospital and now has a job and an apartment. He just stopped by to say “Thank you.”

I remember one time, a young man stopped by the branch and asked to see me. As he talked, I kept trying to figure out where I knew him from. He told me that he had just returned from an international conference where he had the opportunity to present his project. He just wanted to let me know that he achieved this goal because of his love of reading. When I apologized for not recognizing him, I was touched to hear him say: “Don’t worry, I have grown up since you last saw me, but you know what, I will never forget your voice.” This young man was in my preschool story time some 20 or so years ago. When just doing your job impacts lives it is hard to not love it.

Candace Clarke and Carol Freytag, Youth Services – Outreach
Candace and Carol visit local preschools, daycares and communities with the library bus (Community Center on Wheels).

Carol: I work with small children and I like to ask them funny questions to hear their funny answers. They have a different view of the world than adults do. This is my favorite part of the job – talking to the children.  I remember one day when we were out, there was a boy checking out 25 books with his library card. His friend was amazed that he could check out so many books with his card and he said, “That card is power!” The outreach part of the job is so rewarding. We bring families things that they might otherwise not be exposed to.

Candace: There is an exchange happening – it’s not just us bringing stuff to the kids, they are giving back to us, too. We share in their excitements and disappointments – their joys and their sorrows. One day there will be a child so excited to be off of school for a day and then another child sharing how his father died six months ago and he’s still sad about it.

Carol: The children become comfortable with us, we develop a relationship. We try to be another positive influence in their lives. It’s rewarding that they trust us, we are usually at each stop once a month.

Candace: We are something different and exciting that the kids can count on. I wish I could be out all day long with the kids. I enjoy being out in the community. I like to talk to people and get to know them.  I meet people where they go to school, where they do business and where they relax. I like getting to know them better and hearing what’s important to them.

I really like it when several generations visit the bus at one time. The older generation will say they remember visiting a bookmobile when they were young and they are so glad that we are here for their kids and grandkids. It validates what we are doing to hear that we are important to them and that the service we provide enriches their lives.

Back to Becky
Yes, we still have books in the Library, but today books are just one of the ways we bring people together. This is your Library, Boone County, tell us how we can better serve you, we are listening.