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.

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