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Lending e-books has hit a snag at libraries

Many publishers have tripled price, added limitations

Vivian Sade

Photo illustration by Swikar Patel

Children’s librarian Kris Lill reads a Kindle on Friday. Publishers are charging libraries more for e-books and placing restrictions on usage.

Public libraries are under fire from – of all groups – book publishers.

The conflict involves e-books, which are electronic versions of traditional print books that can be read by using a personal computer or an electronic reader such as an Amazon Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPhone or iPad.

Three major publishers – Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan – do not allow libraries to buy their e-books.

Three others – Random House, Knopf and Crown – still offer their e-books on Overdrive, the primary electronic distributor of e-books for many libraries, including Allen County, but now charge three times the list price, said Jeffrey Krull, director of the Allen County Public Library.

So if you’re in the mood to read “Seal Team Six” or “The Help” or just want to hunker down with an electronic version of a Jennifer Weiner best-seller, be forewarned: Because many publishers fear lending e-books will cut into their retail sales, there might be a waiting list at your local library or no electronic copy at all.

At least for now. Library representatives and publishers say they are working on the issue.

Talia Sherer, director of library marketing and national accounts at Macmillan in New York City, said the company continues to “have discussions with librarians and with the American Library Association.”

“We have not, at the moment, found a model we are ready to participate in, but are actively engaged in the process,” Sherer said. “We are continuing to look at various possible models for e-lending.”

While e-books may be bought on CDs, the most popular method of getting one is to buy or borrow a downloadable file from a website. An e-book file can usually be downloaded in five minutes or less.

When the lending time has expired, the words disappear from the file, and the user simply deletes the empty file from his or her computer or e-reader, said Kathy Witwer, adult bibliographer at the Allen County Public Library.

The library has lent 203,153 e-books since it began offering them in January 2011, Witwer said.

In July, the library lent 16,604 e-books; more than double the 8,200 lent in July last year.

The numbers would probably be much higher, but the library has limited or no access to many popular titles, Witwer said, or simply can’t afford to buy multiple copies.

The library’s annual budget for e-books is about $126,000.

An e-book that the library used to get for $26 is now $85, and mass-market paperback e-books that used to cost $7.99 now cost the library $26 each.

Since the library can lend out only one copy of an e-book at a time, it would be cost-prohibitive to order multiple copies, Witwer said. That’s why many who go online to borrow an e-book discover there’s a waiting list.

“It’s not the same as with physical books,” she said.

Limited loan options

Sonja Bovie of Fort Wayne has been downloading and reading e-books on her iPhone for about two years and borrows almost all of them from the Allen County Public Library.

“I’ve gotten away from buying books,” said Bovie, 45. “I don’t have the space, and it’s an added expense.”

By perusing the library’s website and reading the latest book review blogs, Bovie said she has been exposed to and checked out e-books she would have never read if she had to buy them. She had no idea why some titles are unavailable.

“The library is very, very good about introducing me to new books and authors,” she said.

And that helps publishers because studies show that a large percentage of library patrons buy books first introduced to them at a library, according to Krull.

While publishers such as HarperCollins and Zondervan will sell e-books to public libraries, the terms are limited, Krull said.

After the library buys an e-book from either company, it can be lent out only 26 times, then it “disappears” from the library’s files, and the library must buy another copy, Krull said.

The publishers argue that they are basing the limitation on the same lending lifespan of a physical book, said Krull, who disagrees.

“We loan out a physical book many times more than that,” he said.

Three big publishers who are working with libraries are Kensington Publishing, Baker Publishing Group and John Wiley & Sons.

Susan Spilka, a spokeswoman for John Wiley & Sons in Hoboken, N.J., said the company has always been a supporter of public and academic libraries.

“We recognize the importance of making our content available to readers wherever they may be – in bookstores, online, at work or in the classroom, or in the library,” she said.

Working on a solution

Mary Hartman, director of Peabody Public Library in Columbia City, said she is not necessarily opposed to publishers making money. However, it cannot be disputed that public libraries are being charged more money for the same item, Hartman said.

Although Garrett Public Library chose Baker and Taylor as an e-book provider instead of Overdrive, it still experiences the same price hikes and restrictions from some publishers.

Andrea Basinger, the library’s adult-services manager, said changes in publishers’ policies are in a constant state of flux.

“I think most publishers are throwing up their arms and wondering what they will do,” Basinger said.

Krull said he thinks the publishers will eventually get a little more comfortable with both the e-book and physical book operations at public libraries.

“I think many different models will emerge on how this can be done” to satisfy all parties, Krull said.

TheAmerican Library Association has gotten involved in the e-book battle and is arguing for more access to electronic books.

Robert Wolven is co-chairman of the Chicago group’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group, a new committee formed last fall to focus primarily on the e-book question.

The leadership of the ALA, he said, has met with major publishers, author groups and providers like Overdrive, 3M and Baker and Taylor this year with more communication planned this fall.

As dialogue continues among all parties and publishers continue to experiment with different models, it will take time to play out, Wolven said, and that’s fine with the ALA.

“I’d rather get to the right point in two or three years than the wrong point in six months,” he said.


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