libraries and ebooks: a good fit, but a very bad deal, or why library users should just say no to ebooks

Do you ever borrow ebooks from your public library? Do you have any idea how your library adds ebooks to its collection, or at what cost?

The number of library customers who borrow ebooks is growing all the time. How many of them, I wonder, are aware of how their library gets screwed every time they do.

Even some library staff is unaware of the raw deal libraries are getting when it comes to ebooks. Library-themed journals, blogs, and conferences are filled with talk about digital technology and resources. Yet in this deluge of discussion, there is too little exposing - and opposing - the unfair and unnecessary economics of ebooks for public libraries.

Here it is simply. Digital access to a single title - one ebook - costs the public library $85. That $85 is good for only 26 downloads. And only one customer can borrow the ebook at a time.

Under this arrangement, publishers have the best of both worlds. For borrowing purposes, the ebook is treated like a single copy of a print book: only one customer can borrow one title at any given time. But for licensing purposes, the ebook is treated as a controlled digital resource that must be licensed and continually renewed.

Libraries already pay more than full price for print books. There's no volume discount, or non-profit discount. But in the case of ebooks, libraries pay exorbitant fees, anywhere from eight times to 500 times as much as the general public. A print book is available to a theoretically infinite number of library customers, until it physically falls apart. An $85 ebook is available for 26 downloads. After that, the library has the option of licensing it again - essentially re-buying it - for another $85, good for another 26 customers.

This is a blatant ripoff and a terrible use of public funds.

Canadian author and blogger Cory Doctorow has been instrumental in trying to focus attention on this issue.
While I was in Chicago, I sat down with some of the ALA strategists to talk about how libraries are getting a raw deal on e-books. When libraries want to buy an ebook from the publisher, they find themselves paying as much as five times the price you or I pay for the same book. Literally – librarians are paying $60-80, and sometimes more, to include current release frontlist titles in their collections. Each of these ebooks can only be lent to one patron at a time, which means that libraries are sometimes buying a dozen – or more – of these overpriced text-files.

Not only that, but libraries have to buy these books with DRM on them, and invest in expensive, proprietary collection-management software from companies like Overdrive in order to ensure that only one patron at a time can check out any given ebook. These ebooks come with restrictions that don’t appear on regular print books; they can’t be sold on as used books once their circulations drop below a certain threshold; neither can they be shared with another library’s patrons though standard practices like interlibrary loan, a mainstay of libraries for more than a century.

To add insult to injury, HarperCollins insists that libraries delete their ebooks after they are circulated 26 times. This has been pitched as having some parallel to the fact that many library books eventually disintegrate and have to be discarded. But this is both wrong and perverse. Wrong because the 26-circulation cutoff bears no relationship to how many times a book can circulate before it falls to bits. It amazes me to think that HarperCollins wants to frame its products as so badly manufactured that they can’t withstand being read 27 or more times. But beyond the factual problems with a 26-circ cap, there is the fundamental perversity of celebrating and importing the limitations of physical media into the digital world. It’s like insisting that electric bulbs be limited to outputting no more than one lumen of light, since that’s all a comparably-sized candle would manage. The fact that books don’t last forever is not a feature to be preserved through the digital transition: it’s a bug, and the sooner we eliminate it, the better.
The American Library Association, the parent organization of all North American library associations, formed a group called Authors for Library Ebooks (@Authors4LE on Twitter), which seeks to enlist writers to the cause.
Did you know that many ebooks are not available to most libraries at any price? Of those we can buy, libraries frequently pay 150 to 500% more than the consumer price, forcing us to purchase fewer copies for library readers to discover. As more books appear only in electronic form, the situation will become intolerable for our nation’s readers. . . .

The Authors for Library Ebooks campaign seeks to add author voices to those of librarians and readers in support of equitable access to digital content through libraries. There are many ways you can support this effort:

Sign on to the Authors Stand with Libraries statement.

Help us raise awareness of this issue with publishers, other authors and the general public.

Learn more about what’s at stake.
Art Brodsky, in an excellent piece in Wired, explains how the "collusion of large ebook distributors in pricing...contribute[s] to the ever-growing divide between the literary haves and have-nots."
How do such restrictions reinforce the divide between haves and have-nots?

Imagine walking into a library or bookstore and needing three or four pairs of different glasses to read different books manufactured to specific viewing equipment. Or buying a book and then having to arbitrarily destroy it after say, two weeks. That’s just nuts. But it’s the current situation we’re in with ebooks. . . .

Sadly, pricing changes the game for library access altogether because ebook distributors have radically changed the pricing from that of regular books.

Take the example of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous book, Cuckoo’s Calling. For the physical book, libraries would pay $14.40 from book distributor Baker & Taylor — close to the consumer price of $15.49 from Barnes & Noble and of $15.19 from Amazon. But even though the ebook will cost consumers $6.50 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, libraries would pay $78 (through library ebook distributors Overdrive and 3M) for the same thing.

Somehow the “e” in ebooks changes the pricing game, and drastically. How else does one explain libraries paying a $0.79 to $1.09 difference for a physical book to paying a difference of $71.50 just because it’s the electronic version? It’s not like being digital makes a difference for when and how they can lend it out.

In another wrinkle: Random House jacked up its ebook prices to libraries 300 percent last year, and HarperCollins limits the number of check-outs per ebook. This means libraries have to lease another “copy” when they reach a certain threshold … as if the ebook had died or something. In fact, that’s the problem some authors have with ebooks — not just that they earn less money on them, but that “They never degrade. They are perpetual. That harms writers directly,” as historian and novelist David O. Stewart has observed.

These authors don’t mind the high prices charged to libraries because they don’t even like libraries to begin with. Stewart has called libraries “undeniably socialist” because books can be loaned out (for free!) many times, costing writers money from presumably lost sales. This is the same justification book publishers use for their distorted ebook pricing.

But that’s just wrong. Most physical books in libraries aren’t tattered and worn out, particularly hardbacks. And just because an ebook may last forever doesn’t mean it will be read. Reader demand changes with the cultural context: When The Help was at the top of the Times’ fiction best-seller list for 15 weeks in 2011, readers had to wait weeks for copies to come back to their libraries; but now, 39 out of the 79 copies of the book in my local library system are available for checkout.

There are some enlightened authors, like Jodi Picoult and Cory Doctorow, who have joined the Authors for Library E-books campaign, which adds author voices to those of librarians and readers in support of equitable access to digital content. As their site notes, not only are many books not even available to libraries at any price, but those that are can only be purchased at 150 to 500 percent more than the consumer price — “forcing us to purchase fewer copies for library readers to discover.”
Once I learned how ebooks were gobbling up library budgets, I wished the library world had turned its collective back on ebooks altogether. I would rather see the entire ebooks budget spent on print resources, or even on DVDs and videogames. That would certainly bring more resources to more people, which is part of our mission. But that ship has sailed. Libraries cannot afford to be perceived as antiquated or anti-technology, and library customers deserve access to all available formats. The problem is not ebooks: it's publishers and distributors - and overly restrictive digital-rights management.

Way back when, when wmtc featured "we like lists" posts, there was a post called "it was the best of lists, it was the worst of lists". We identified both the good and the bad in the same thing. One of those lists, courtesy of M@, was about ebooks.
I like that:

1. They tend to be cheaper.

2. There's an opportunity, currently being somewhat fulfilled but possibly to improve, for authors to be better compensated for their work.

3. The democratization of publishing is possible in the way that the democratization of music happened in the last 10 years or so.

4. They really are very convenient to buy and read.

5. Every book can be available to every internet-connected person on earth.


1. I like the tangible properties of books.

2. I love browsing bookshelves, both in stores and in people's homes. Browsing virtual bookshelves doesn't even compare.

3. Book prices have not stabilized. Currently many e-books cost more than their trade paperback equivalents, not less. There is no good reason for this.

4. I find flipping through reference books a great way to find things I didn't know I wanted to learn; I find flipping through any book a good way to get a sense of whether it's worth reading or not. There is no equivalent in an e-book.

5. I can't figure out how to sign electronic copies of my books.
I agree with everything on this list, although I have grave concerns about a democratization movement that depends on access to and comfort with technology, since those are not democratically distributed.

But for me personally, I wouldn't care if I never read another ebook again. The only advantage I find is the ease of carrying them around: they lighten the load on my shoulder or in my backpack. Other than that, I agree with the more than 60% of young readers surveyed in the UK: I prefer print books.

I get 100% of my news and other reading online - no broadcast or cable TV, no print newspapers, no print magazines. But when it comes to books, I prefer print. And when it comes to libraries, I prefer our budgets not be held hostage to profit-driven digital-rights-management schemes.


laura k said...

The blog Librarian In Black has written quite a few posts on this issue.

I'm breaking up with ebooks (and you can too)

Day against DRM: Why Librarians Should Just Say No


Just say no to Freegal

In that last post, the blogger is praised for her courage in criticizing a library vendor. But she's anonymous! She may need anonymity, but there's no courage in that!

Lorne said...

Thanks for a very interesting post. While I was aware that an e-book can only be lent out 26 times, I had no idea of the exorbitant fees being charged. I doubt, however, that libraries will ever take a stand, largely owing to the kind of leadership found in institutions today. So many have their eye on promotion and advancement that they uncritically accept the 'flavour of the month' so as to be part of the team and open to new ideas, no matter how bad those ideas might be.

I saw enough of that in my career as a teacher, and I have no doubt the same is true in libraries. Until leadership with integrity prevails (a forlorn hope, I admit), expect things to deteriorate even further.

laura k said...

Thanks, Lorne.

Oh absolutely, public libraries themselves will never take a stand against this, but I don't think that's down to a failure of leadership. It's down to the realities and pressures of funding.

But the library community in general - the ALA, the OLA, and many other organizations - can take a stand against this and try to negotiate better deals with distributors.

Most library leadership has already achieved personal advancement, such as it is in our field, and are not motivated by self-interest. Of course, everyone has some self-interest, but in this case, I think creating a vibrant and healthy library covers their own interests and the library's.

James Redekop said...

Re: signing ebooks, SF Author Robert Sawyer has authors sign his reader case; when it's full, he gets another.

Heather T. said...

Can I just put in here that many organizations and libraries are trying and finding creative solutions? Like Douglas County Colorado which built their own platform and negotiated directly with publishers, and my organization, Califa, which scaled their solution for California statewide, the enki library? Also Amigos in the southwest, built a platform. There are many more in the works. We are negotiating with forward thinking independent publishers and authors and there's a ton of great material available directly at or below retail. Check out califa.org/enkiproject :)

impudent strumpet said...

Wow, I had no idea about this! I wonder then why on earth my library sometimes has books in ebook format only??

I think I'd better stop borrowing ebooks from the library when I'm not even reading them (most usually because I want to be able to search through the text of the book, even though I'm in the process of reading it or have previously read it on paper). It's definitely not worth costing the library $3.25 just because I can't remember who that one character is and want to go back and look up their first appearance!

laura k said...

Heather, that's amazing, and so good to hear. I wonder where libraries are finding funding to build their own ebook platforms. And what publishers and distributors are involved.

Also wondering why, in all the research I did, not one word came up about anything in your comment.

laura k said...

Robert J. Sawyer: appearing at Mississauga Central Library on October 18.

laura k said...

I wonder then why on earth my library sometimes has books in ebook format only??

Same in my library system. Usually it's on low-demand titles, where those 26 downloads might last for years and years (theoretically forever), thus saving shelf space. Or it might be an older, out-of-copyright title. Do either of those apply?

Some low-demand titles might be made available to libraries in packages - like, a discount for ordering these 100 titles that are not in high demand, all as ebooks.

laura k said...

To me, one of the craziest parts of this whole thing is that only one person can borrow an ebook at a time. I understand a need for some DRM - I am not especially anti-DRM - but treating a digital resource as if it were print is so ridiculous.

James Redekop said...

If you happen to get a chance to talk to Robert Sawyer, tell him that Corey Redekop's cousin James says Hello.

He's done book reading appearances with Corey (Shelf Monkey, Husk), and we met on the Not-The-End-Of-The-World-2012 cruise.

Freckle Tim said...

I think that the library management system operators could help to solve a lot of these problems . They have the expertise and the scale

One problem is that in supplying ebooks to libraries we have made the supply chain longer and more complicated (and expensive ) than it used to be with print books

Another is that we aren't making good use of the ( non personal ) data that is collected and which could be very beneficial to publishers ( like which titles from an author are more popular - publishers don't see that information )

There is a lot that can be done to make this all work better to everyone's advantage .. Heather from Califa is right - she and others are doing important work

Tim Coates

laura k said...

library management system operators

Do you mean vendors like Overdrive? IMO they are part of the problem.

Another is that we aren't making good use of the ( non personal ) data that is collected and which could be very beneficial to publishers

I don't think libraries should spend resources on this. Publishers have tons of that information from retailers. If the publishers want some kind of downloading-reporting system built into the system, they can work with Overdrive and 3M to create one.

laura k said...

James, on the day Robert Sawyer is at our library I'll be running 3 teen programs, so I won't get anywhere near him. YOU, on the other hand, are welcome to attend Bookfest and say hi in person!

Mississauga Bookfest 2014 a feast for sci-fi fans

M@ said...

Just as a note, every single one of the things I listed in what I like about e-books is undermined by the ways publishers are screwing libraries. (I don't imagine for a second that authors are seeing more revenue for library sales, although I'll see if I can find out.)

This is a ridiculous situation.

laura k said...

every single one of the things I listed in what I like about e-books is undermined by the ways publishers are screwing libraries.

Right! In fact, lesser-known authors, small publishing houses, and self-publishing platforms are (usually) not even represented.

Freckle Tim said...

No I don't mean Overdrive or 3m

The library management systems are the systems that hold library catalogs

They are operated by a small number of large companies worldwide

It is surprising how remote publishers and libraries are - they operate as if on different planets . That is because the mechanism for getting print books to libraries is complicated ( much more complicated than the retail supply chain )

Building a better bridge between the two industries is a worth while pursuit . It would certainly help with the problems you are writing about

laura k said...

The library management systems are the systems that hold library catalogs

I know those as ILSs. Sirsi Dynix, etc. I don't know anything about the inner workings of those companies, but they seemed to be stretched very thin just doing what they already do.

It is surprising how remote publishers and libraries are - they operate as if on different planets

It's not surprising to me. They *do* operate on different planets. Publishing houses are for-profit corporations, especially the large houses - their parent companies are media giants. Libraries have a completely different mission and purpose.

Making a better link between publishing and libraries might be a good pursuit, but I don't know who would do it. Libraries certainly can't, and I don't see why publishers would want to, what their motivation would be. But... it sounds like a good idea.

James Redekop said...

The purpose of a publisher is to collect money in exchange for providing books to people; the purpose of a library is to provide books to people without collecting money. Problems are bound to drop up when trying to hook the two together...

(Of course, if we could convince publishers that providing free reading material to people when they're young turns them into avid book purchasers later, maybe they'd be a little more sympathetic to libraries...)

Freckle Tim said...



An ILMS could hold the entire catalog of ebooks - publishers give out ebook metadata free ( amazon don't buy or acquire ebooks before they offer them on their site )

So every library in the country could hold a full ebook catalog and offer every title to its patrons

I know there are them issues of cost of supply - I fully understand that - but we could avoid the cost of intermediate platforms ( like the ones you mentioned ) and we could manage the DRM costs more effectively . We could even have a library specific DRM rather than a commercial one and that would save a huge amount

The pattern of what is read in libraries and what is purchased in retail stores, in terms of authors and titles, is quite quite different . That's why the information is valuable to publishers - and it is worth money to them to see it .

Of course publishers and libraries have different business models - but we aren't going to change that

I think the ILMS companies are well positioned to host an initiative - it is something they would do well - and libraries could urge them to do it . It is a question of working to bridge the gap

Amazon - among other things(!) have an incredibly efficient supply chain and their customers benefit from it . There is no harm in the library service striving to achieve the same

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss all these things more widely - I think there is an opportunity to make real progress

Heather T. said...

Hi there - our funding came from grants from the CA State Library, the Kansas State Library (you probably read about their pioneering fight for ownership vs licensing back in 2011) and several regional consortia. Colorado is now also developing a statewide project. The publishers with whom we work are listed on that page I sent you (califa.org/enkiproject) as well as a list of some of the press we've received. We've been getting a lot of attention in the library press, but it's all still so new, that I'm not sure the non-library world understands the issues or knows how to report it.

I've started a blog with the different ebook projects that are going on nationwide - libraryebookprojects.blogspot.com if you want to keep up. I haven't updated it in a bit - waiting for a few more projects to launch.

Tim at Freckle has been doing important work, too. I know Librarian in Black doesn't like Freegal/Freading, but I have to say, they are also pioneering the model. With Freading (same company that owns Freegal), you get the entire catalog and just pay each time a patron checks something out. No holds, for example. I don't really understand Tim (Freckle's) model that well yet since it's still new, but I know he gets the issues involved - there are a lot of people trying to solve this.

There has to be more experimentation and different models. One author, Joe Konrath, just started a company called ebooksareforever.com for libraries. It's another model that I'm excited about.

It's not all just doom and gloom right now!!! For a long time OverDrive was the only game in town, but that's changing. There are a lot of publishers who want to support libraries, and self-publishing taking off is also changing things. It's actually a really exciting time.

laura k said...

Hi Tim and Heather,

You should definitely not have the impression that I am all gloom and doom when it comes to libraries! I am a new librarian - it's my 2nd or maybe 3rd career - and super optimistic and enthusiastic about libraries in general.

This post was not intended to say - and I'm sure it doesn't say - that there are no other ways and no other possibilities.

I'm saying that at the majority of public libraries, this is the current situation regarding ebooks. And it stinks.

I'm very glad to learn there's hope on the horizon. Knowing the way my own and many other library systems operate, new platforms are very far away, and creating new platforms is out of the question. But it's great to know who is leading the way on change.

Thanks for your comments! I'm wondering where you saw the post? I'm guessing Twitter?

Heather T. said...

I have a google news alert for ebooks and you came up :)

laura k said...

Ah of course. I realized later it was probably an alert. Thanks again and best of luck.