As e-books grow in popularity, and more people than ever own e-reading devices, libraries are struggling to keep the most popular titles available for lending.
E-books cost them far more than printed versions: the latest John Grisham e-book costs $85 per copy even though the bulk-priced printed book is only $20. If e-book demand starts to eclipse regular books, it’s easy to see why libraries find the current model unsustainable.
Libraries view themselves as a vital part of the health of publishing by fostering a love of reading, supporting writers and providing free access to a wide range of materials. Even so, accessing e-books from publishers has been a constant struggle. At first, publishers didn’t sell to libraries at all. Now they set costs prohibitively high, put restrictions on use, and require costly proprietary software to protect copyright.
Publishers worry that e-book borrowers don’t buy books or that they’ll attempt to copy and share their content but in fact, as the Pew Research Centre discovered when American libraries first began dealing with this issue, most readers borrow and buy books. Armed with this information, libraries are fighting back.
E-books make up between 17 and 20 per cent in a publishing industry of over one billion sales per year, and libraries want to expand their e-book collections to meet the demand. Last month, a coalition of Ontario library associations and Toronto Public Library (TPL) launched a fair pricing campaign – a collective effort to encourage publishers to take serious notice. It’s part of a larger advocacy initiative which will include meetings with the federal and provincial governments and Canada’s competition bureau.
It’s well documented in Canada and the U.S. that the publishers charging the most for e-books or restricting use are the Big Five: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette and Simon & Schuster. They produce the most in-demand, best-selling titles, so if libraries want the books most people are asking for they have to play by their rules.
One e-book can run between $85 and $100, costing the library far more than the typical $14.99 retail price. Publishers in the Big Five selling e-books at more reasonable prices put restrictions on number of uses, after which the title needs to be repurchased. For instance, HarperCollins allows 26 check-outs per copy; Macmillan permits 52 over two years and Simon & Schuster e-books expire at one year. Smaller publishers with lesser known authors naturally demand few or no restrictions, and are more affordably priced.
E-books are borrowed exactly as their printed counterparts: one book per library member for a one to three week period. Their disappearance from reading devices after that time is handled by the intermediary platform OverDrive. It acts as a publisher’s distribution house, a marketplace for library purchases and a vehicle for user downloads. Author Cory Doctorow, an advocate for fair pricing for libraries in the U.S., and also against the anti-piracy software they use, wrote in Locus Magazine, “These e-books 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 through standard practices like interlibrary loan, a mainstay of libraries for more than a century.”
The first challenge at the time the market began to take hold in 2008 was that publishers weren’t offering e-books to libraries at all. They didn’t yet see how to protect copyright and author royalties and needed to conceive a dedicated business model.
“There was a lot of fear,” says Shelagh Paterson, executive director of the Ontario Library Association. “Authors and publishers needed to be assured that e-books aren’t that different than print books, that we’re educated to protect copyright. And with 3,400 public library points – branches and bookmobiles – across Canada, we’re the best shot for authors to have their work found, read and bought.”
At Toronto Public Library, e-book spending has grown from $185,000 in 2009 to $3.5 million in 2015. With next year’s budget in process, and TPL’s main funder, the City of Toronto asking for reductions, city librarian Vickery Bowles says the fair pricing campaign coalition has a solution it hopes publishers will consider: “We’re asking for a new pricing model. For instance, we bought 100 copies of Grey Mountain, the new John Grisham novel, at $85 each, that’s $8500 for just one title. A better pricing model would be we buy 10 copies at a higher price and we have ongoing, or what they call perpetual access to that content. Then we buy 90 copies at a lower price and a year later, they expire.” The campaign has been trying to meet with publishers to propose this idea.
TVO.org reached out to publishers and the Canadian Publisher’s Council to get an idea of their worries about libraries, but none has agreed to comment. John Degen, executive director of The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), says that publishers not publicly communicating their decisions could lead people to reduce this to corporate greed, but it’s not that simple.
“Institutional pricing for libraries has solid business reasoning behind it that works for everyone – providing library patrons with lots of free access, but protecting, to a certain extent, the value of the book in the market. E-books complicate this picture because they don’t naturally wear out with multiple readings like physical books do, and so will not naturally result in multiple purchases by libraries servicing high demand,” says Degen.
A library’s ability to sustain its e-book collection is more difficult in a smaller system, such as Ajax Library whose three branches serve approximately 34,000 members. Last year alone, Ajax’s e-book downloads increased by 25 per cent, causing chief librarian Donna Bright to ask for extra money in her budget.
Always on the lookout to find ways to afford more e-books, Ajax Library recently took part in a download drive that won it $2500 toward its collection. Bright says she’s also looked into an idea born in Douglas County, Colorado where libraries develop their own industry-standard platforms, allowing them to purchase digital content directly from publishers and lend it to members, all in their own control at a lower cost and without involving OverDrive. “We could then create a server arrangement for a consortium of libraries and be able to deal with more local authors and independent publishers.”
Looking to the American model is not a bad idea since U.S. libraries are a year or two ahead of Canada when it comes to dealing with the Big Five, and have learned by trial and error what might work. Where the Ontario fair pricing campaign has yet to attract a name author to do its bidding and kick the initiative into high gear, south of the border exists a coalition of authors concerned, not only about prices and availability, but moving ahead to the sticky issue of Digital Rights Management (DRM), who exactly owns an e-book and why libraries need locked content – something that could disrupt libraries’ ability to meet their preservation mandate.
TWUC’s John Degen suggests two solutions for libraries and publishers: “Libraries should buy few blockbusters and more independent titles,” he says. “That will increase the diversity of offerings, and maybe even provide market incentive to the Big Five to offer deals to libraries.” The other is a question of funding. “If libraries are a valued and well-used public good, fund them properly.”
“It’s not about funding,” says Vickery Bowles. “It’s about pricing models. We’re well funded in Toronto and we still have a difficult time.”
“I understand publishers are in a challenging situation in a changing business landscape. I’m sympathetic to that,” she says. “We want a strong publishing industry here in Canada. But what publishers need to understand is that libraries are part of a vibrant publishing industry and we’re part of the ecosystem of reading. We need to work together.”
Image credit: Devon Christopher Adams/flickr
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.