E-book pricing poses challenge for public libraries

To the Editor:

Have you curled up with an e-book lately? Chances are good that you have. While print books continue to be a solid mainstay — 65 percent of readers nationwide prefer them, according to a September 2019 article by the Pew Research Center — the popularity of digital books has rapidly increased.

Two years ago, a 23-percent jump in e-book usage was noted at the Guilderland Public Library; last year saw a jaw-dropping 58-percent increase. This figure mirrors universal trends reported by CNBC in September 2019.  It’s clear that growing hordes are delving into e-books.

And why not? They’re convenient and affordable. Patrons don’t have to physically come to the library to obtain desired items. Convenience is king as cardholders simply download their literary selections onto their smartphones, tablets, and e-readers for free.

Libraries typically offer Libby for e-books and e-Audiobooks, Flipster to page through popular magazines, and Tumblebooks for access to children’s books. They also lend digital audiobooks, tailor-made for commuters, as well as assistance getting established with all media.

But there’s a bit of a catch: e-books are so popular that libraries are having trouble keeping up with the demand, and publishers are not making it easier. They often charge libraries more for an e-book than they charge consumers, and limit the number of times e-books can be borrowed.

Throughout the Upper Hudson Library System, which serves public library users in Albany and Rensselaer counties, if all copies are already checked out, patrons may place a hold to request a book.  For printed books, the average wait time is seven days. But for e-books, it can be 35 days or more.

Under United States law, libraries (and individuals who buy books) generally have the right to lend out their physical books as long and as often as they choose, with no additional payments to the author or the publisher.

Publishers dictate the terms under which e-books can be lent out, which can vary widely. Many offered by major publishers come with licensing agreements that require each virtual copy to be essentially purchased anew after they’ve been lent out a certain number of times — 26 lends is quite common — or after a certain amount of time has elapsed.

This leads us to the flipside of e-books. For libraries as well as individuals, it can be a challenge to own and lend a digital book. Ordinarily, libraries might buy multiple digital copies of an expected bestseller. 

But for public libraries on limited budgets, some restrictive licensing agreements are forcing careful selection on what we can reasonably offer to the public. As a result, library users may find the excellent free resource of e-books impacted by agreements and industry policies outside of libraries’ control.

Case in point: Publishing giant Macmillan announced that starting in November, library systems will only be able to purchase a single digital copy for the first eight weeks of circulation. This cap applies equally to smaller single-location libraries and sprawling multi-branch systems, so that only a tiny fraction of readers would win the lottery, so to speak, and be able to borrow that digital book fresh from the publisher.

Macmillan’s decision drew criticism from major libraries and the American Library Association, which launched an online petition urging Macmillan not to implement this restrictive policy. So far, it’s drawn almost 210,000 signatures.

The large library system in King County, Oregon is taking this a step further, boycotting Macmillan e-books all together. Suburban New York City-based White Plains Library has done the same, and others are sure to follow suit.

All of this makes e-book lending a more complicated proposition for libraries. While they strive to meet consumer demand, libraries need to carefully determine what’s worth purchasing given these constraints, while also maintaining the still-popular print collection. It becomes a balancing act, which could also impact newer authors seeking exposure.

We are passionate about providing both traditional books and e-books. However, we must remain committed to responsible spending within our budget. Publishers certainly don’t make it easy to serve the public with these restrictive policies.

What’s the solution to this copyright conundrum? One possibility could be for Congress to create a standard royalty system for lending out e-books.

Right now, it’s unclear what the demand would be for such a change, but, as more lenders become negatively impacted, calls for reform could grow louder. This type of proposed legislation would be a first in the United States, but perhaps the time has come for serious consideration.

Meanwhile, libraries continue to serve as valuable community resources where anyone can access books and other media free of charge. As libraries continue to augment the availability of media governed by the fine print of licensing agreements, they strive to uphold their mission of putting as many borrowed materials into patrons’ hands as possible — in all their forms.

We will keep doing our utmost to provide both physical books and e-books. We want our patrons to know that we’re doing our best, given publisher restraints.

Timothy Wiles



Public Library

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