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Ebooks for Libraries: Still a Ripoff

It’s rare to see informed journalism about libraries and ebooks. Most news articles I see are along the lines of “Libraries are now lending ebooks,” with a brief report of a few libraries that are now, in fact, lending ebooks. That’s neither informative or particularly new.

Thus, it’s nice to see a couple of recent articles from Forbes discussing the issue. It’s hard for me to read those articles and wonder why the heck libraries are still bending over backwards to lend ebooks.

The first article is about the overwhelming dominance of Overdrive in the public library ebook market, and boy is it overwhelming. “In terms of market share, OverDrive says that they serve over 90% of the 16,400 US public libraries,  with a 99% renewal rate in that segment.”

That’s kind of a stunning figure if you think about it. Over 90% of public libraries use Overdrive, and probably only Overdrive, to supply ebooks. All it would take is an overdrive for bigger profits to cause serious problems to libraries from the lack of competition.

A new Baker & Taylor enterprise and the 3M Cloud Library are hoping to compete, but it’s pretty hard to compete when that many libraries are already locked into a system. The savings or offerings of new services would have to be substantially better than Overdrive to justify the expense and annoyance of moving platforms. All Overdrive has to do is wait for them to fail before raising prices very much.

It would have to be the savings, because it almost certainly wouldn’t be increase offerings. The article headline is revealing: “You’ll Need a PhD To Make Sense Of The Pricing Schemes Publishers Impose On Libraries.”

Overdrive doesn’t want you to need a PhD. They just want librarians to let them worry about all the sordid details of the pricing schemes publishers are foisting on libraries. Don’t worry your pretty little head about paying exorbitant prices for heavily restricted digital content.

True, lots of people want ebooks from libraries, but it seems that ebooks are still a tiny percentage of the circulation. Although there might be “explosive growth…by as much as 100% in the last year,” the size of the explosion seems smaller when you find examples the NYPL, where 4.7% of the circulation was ebooks.

That’s a smaller percentage than purchases of ebooks compared to print books, but even that percentage isn’t huge. While a boosterish NYT article about an AAP report boasted that ebook sales were “a boon to publishers in 2012,” a more careful CSM article about the same report noted that a 47% increase in growth was actually a slowdown, and that ebooks still account for only 20% of book sales.

Print, it seems, is not dead.

Library circulation of ebooks would perhaps go up dramatically if it wasn’t unnecessarily parallel to print circulation, but that’s one of the challenges to libraries, who can’t afford to spend the sometimes several hundred percent markup of the ebook for library use while still having restricted access.

Perhaps that will work itself out over time, but I doubt it. If ebooks ever finally do become the norm and print books are much less available, it’s likely libraries will be spending more money on significantly fewer books.

Seems like a ripoff.

One library system in Ohio has decided to ask for legal help, although the move strikes me as naive. Its board voted to ask their Congressional representatives to “ensure public access to e-book materials through public libraries.” It’s a touching if pointless gesture.

Their argue that publishers won’t sell them ebooks, and that even when they do the price markup is “exorbitant.” The problem? “The resolution notes these restrictions limits information to ‘only those who can afford to purchase it.’”

Something tells me that won’t bother enough members of the current Congress to get anything done. First, that would require that enough members care that people don’t have access to public goods unless they can pay for them individually. Second, it assumes they care about “maintaining an informed citizenry.” Seems unlikely.

Finally, it assumes the current Congress effectively makes laws anymore.

My prediction: no legal help at all. Libraries are in the business of providing access to books for everyone. Publishers definitely aren’t in that business, and now that they can restrict library access to books they’re doing it. This clash of values could cause grief for libraries for a long time to come.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. In my past life in libraries the director’s solution to publishers restricting library ebook access was to encourage local authors to write books and publish them for free through the library. We’re encouraging local authors and getting heaps of free content! Win-win!

    I was going to write something here about how library’s needed to stop with the empty gestures like the above idea or petitioning their congressman, but then I realized that it wouldn’t matter even if libraries got serious about this issue. Publishers finally have libraries over the barrel in a bad way, something they’ve wanted for decades, and at this point it seems all libraries can really do is take a page from the wisdom of Darth Vader and pray the publishers don’t alter the deal any further.

  2. It’s only a win win if the content is actually something someone wants to read…

  3. Shh! I was going to mention that but we don’t want that army of butthurt self-published authors to descend on the comments again!

  4. All of this is true – but only for the now estimated 1/3 of content produced annually in the US. I do believe that the practices of legacy publishers will hasten their decline. Meanwhile, let’s focus our attention on the emerging content: independent publishers and self-published authors. That’s clearly the future of writing, so that’s where we ought to be, too.

  5. A successful "Self-published" author says:

    So Andrew, it is now those who refuse to bow down to the giant publishing machine (“The Big 5,” that was the “Big 6,= and before that the “Big 7″–are you seeing a trend here)? Mega-publishing is a joke. Paris Hilton’s DOG authors a book. Any celebrity or politician is instantly a “celebrity author” because a real writer can ghostwrite for them. And your primary concern is that ” that army of butthurt self-published authors to descend on the comments again”? What kind of librarian-elitist-snob are you and WHY should any of us care about you or your job if you are so eager to attack the creators of the content that sells? Not all books are created equal: published or not. But is it REALLY the job of librarians to whine and moan when the publishers are “screwing them” when they themselves turn away EVERYTHING not available through Ingram and B&T? I have read a LOT of library books, bought even more at full retail, donated several dozen NEW books to public libraries (including the special edition Harry Potter books on the third day they were out (after gentle reads) only to be told those books will be instantly sold instead of added to the collections. I pay my own way through life. I hire the best and most expensive editor I can, best cover designers, pay for my own marketing, and I am outselling most everyone in my niche genre. But you seem to think that the term “self-published” is equivalent to miscreants.

    I have a two word phrase for you from ” that army of butthurt self-published authors” and if I ever find out your true name I will make sure that your opinions are widely known and we will see what the public has to say about your job.

  6. I comment under my own name and I don’t work in libraries anymore. I’m not hiding behind a pseudonym and I don’t have to worry about what the profession or the taxpayers think of my opinions on the profession.

  7. pete pappentick says:

    “It’s only a win win if the content is actually something someone wants to read…” “Self-publisher” is correct, IMO, however. Some public library book selectors have an automatic bias against local authors based on nothing more than personal dislike or that they are “just trying to make money” – well, who isn’t?

  8. Kate Barsotti says:

    Sigh. I have tried to generate a good discussion about this topic, to no avail. May as well try once more.

    1. Publishing is an ecosystem. All parties rely on cooperation to thrive. Demonizing people or entities with different–but legitimate–interests makes coolaboration more difficult and less likely. I appreciate your passion. I feel passionate, too, about creating art. To find solutions, we both have to give a little,

    2. Librarians ought to consider the recent lawsuits against publishers and Apple. The judgment on alleged price fixing slowed the whole process down and has been very expensive. It left many publishers even more skittish about ebook lending. So this outcome has been rough on everyone in the ecosystem, not just libraries.

    3. Publishers should be concerned about ebooks, price, and availabilty because of the music industry, which has lost about half its value since Napster and mp3s came along. Book scanning technology is getting cheaper. And with the recent ruling on fair use, some publishers are going to have a very hard time justifying the publication of important, yet low-selling books. If this fair use applies to Google Books, then I imagine it applies to libraries and indiviuals.

    What is to stop a book lover from scanning his personal library and offering it up for nothing? Once you lose consumers/ buyers, they rarely go back.

    How does an author protect her intellectual property? In traditional publishing, authors are usually paid twice a year. No benefits except the ones we provide ourselves or through spouses. If I lose all or most control of my work, then writing is not a profession. It is a hobby that the world values but does not want to pay for. If you do not believe me, research how bitter some singers and groups are about YouTube.

    On an emotional level, as a reader and writer, I feel somewhat betrayed by libraires. Why? You offered up a treasure trove to Google Books without any of us, the creators, being consulted. If anyone could have afforded to license our work, it is Google. As it stands, it looks like we get nothing, and our work gets added to a valuable pile of creativity and culture controlled by a corporation, not a national library. I would have felt very differently if authos had been asked and allowed to craft a better model.

    I no longer have privacy as a reader, something I valued in the library sytem. What kind of data is Google storing about me?

    4. I think we can find a pricing model that is fair and reasonable if all parties are invited to the table and come in good faith. Which, when you get right down to it, is the real problem.

  9. The exchanges with the self-published authors were very revealing. Essentially, their comments came down to “It’s not my responsibility to market my books in a way that works for the realities of library purchasing and collection development. It’s your responsibility to buy my books because I tell you they are good.” Getting angry and threatening people as you did is also not a good marketing strategy. Some self-published books are excellent. Some self-published authors are good marketers who can figure out how to sell their books. You may be good at both, but comments such as the one you posted harm your cause and your reputation. I assume you know that, which is why you didn’t include your name.

  10. Sorry, didn’t mean to kick off a retread of old battles. I continue to believe, as a librarian and an author, that we can PARTNER to launch a new era of literature. If a publisher would call my library to offer to put a large digital display of their e-works, available for check out and discounted purchase, featuring follow-up author events through the library, I would JUMP on it. But instead, the Big Five are following precisely the same tactics used by the failed music industry: tighter control, higher prices, and being irritating to producer and consumer both. I get that the economics are changing. But libraries have repeatedly demonstrated our value in ENCOURAGING sales (see studies by Pew, Bowker and LJ, and even Douglas County). I think the real trick is to find a way to encourage genuine dialog and consideration of this new content in a way that honors the value all parties MIGHT bring (and sometimes do) the process of making a good book and helping it find an audience. I’m finding that many independent publishers are eager to experiment with us, and suspect that that’s where the enduring models will probably originate as a consequence.

  11. Libraries complain about the big 6 publishers shafting them with huge prices, then go and insult those who made an end run around those publishers and produced their own work. I have been writing for 40 years, and I am one of those “butthurt” authors mentioned in the article. Not really, because I stand by my work and if libraries are going to judge by their own narrow minded criteria what constitutes a good book, they are going to lose. The process of self-publishing is just as rigorous and standardized as that of any traditional publisher. I charge half to a third of the printed price for my ebooks, but because I do you people are going to see my work as inferior? Yet you will stock something so irrelevant as Fifty Shades of Grey because it was published by a publishing corporation? Excuse me? Benjamin Franklin published his own books. So did a lot of early writers, whose titles are now classics and revered for their craft. So now you are going to reject their books too, I suppose. If you can’t be bothered to become real librarians and learn the history of books, I can avoid spending money sending physical books to you, because quite frankly I don’t give a damn about you and your so-called “institution” if that’s going to be your attitude. You have bought into the corporate mentality hook, line and sinker. Learn to distinguish between good and bad books, not how they were published.

  12. This is precisely why I founded Xist Publishing 3 years ago. We now have a catalog of over 180 beautiful children’s ebooks- available to libraries through OverDrive, Baker & Taylor, Mackin, Biblioboard and anyone else who wants our content. We have strict submission requirements and turn down more than we publish.

    That said, our mission is to help kids develop a lifetime love of reading- no matter what form it takes. For some members of the touchscreen generation, print will still rule. For others, they will use their screen time for reading time. Libraries play an essential role in literacy development and to abandon ebooks would be putting our kids at a disadvantage.

    I know that many publishers have priced their ebooks at astronomical levels for libraries but we’ve chosen to make our ebooks available at 1/3 – 1/2 of the print list price. We want libraries to buy our books because when readers find titles they love, purchasing happens too.

  13. steve vaughn says:

    Here is the deal. Printed books are a container for intellectual property. Printed books actually restrict the use of the intellectual property by their physical nature. A book can only be in one place at a time. A book sometimes gets destroyed (thrown out, soaked, burned…) and often just wear out. If you take the operating costs of a library and divide it by the number of physical books they own, each physical book costs hundreds of dollars over its lifetime. I library is basically a warehouse located on prime real estate run by highly educated people.

    eBooks are pure intellectually property, with out the physical restrictions of a book. They don’t wear out. There is always the potential that an eBook can be hacked and then then replicated hundreds or millions of times. You don’t have to drive to the library to get one. You don’t have to build a book case to store one. You don’t need a building or a parking lot or even librarians to distribute eBooks.

    So when you talk about the ridiculous price of eBooks, you are simply missing the obvious. That eBooks allow readers to avoid enormous costs that physical books require. eBooks at ‘ridiculous’ prices cost a fraction of what physical books cost.

    And when you ask why libraries put up with the ‘ridiculous’ prices of eBooks, I think the answer is that libraries are searching for a future and eBooks are going to be part of that future. The alternative for libraries is to cede their customer base (library patrons) to the likes of Amazon and then close.

  14. If you think that libraries are just a warehouse for books, you have no idea what goes on in a public library. Yes, there are books, but a lot more goes on there these days. Storytimes, lectures, concerts, discussion groups, meeting space for various entities, social service information, seasonal tax resources, job help, homework help….. I could go on.

  15. They are doing clever things in Douglas County Colorado libraries. Also, is a startup helping/hoping to disrupt eBook loaning.

  16. Always great to hear from “authors.”

  17. Bonegirl06 says:

    E-books may not have the restrictions you mentioned, but that does not mean that they don’t come with their own downsides that make them unattractive to people. E-books may not have the physical restrictions of a book, but you will never actually own an e-book and at any moment it could be gone because it exists at the mercy of publishers and systems. There have been examples of this happening. You can’t lend your e-book to a friend and you can’t donate your e-book if you don’t like it to someone who might at your local library. You say that e-books don’t degrade, but that’s hardly true. New storage formats come out all the time in the world of technology and digital files degrade or corrupt frequently. Technology needs to be constantly upgraded to preserve information. You also assume that all people have the devices needed to read e-books. Not everyone can afford these things, and there is also the cost of upgrading devices now and then to keep up with formats, innovations and devices that break down. E-books are certainly the future, but there is no evidence that they are close to replacing print or libraries as of yet.

  18. coffee_talk says:

    PDA does not just mean “public display of affection.” I’m verklempt. Tawk amongst yasselves.

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