Libraries stuck in digital divide
Major publishing houses thwart efforts to expand availability of e-books
In the new world of e-books, tablets and e-readers, industry consolidation and self-publishing, Durango Public Library, as all libraries around the country, is in unfamiliar territory without a map.
“Three years ago, e-books were all new and scary,” said Andy White, the director of Durango Public Library. “Now, they’re not new, but they’re still scary.”
As part of its solution, the library joined with nine other libraries to found the Across Colorado Digital Consortium, which created its own catalogue with e-book distributor Overdrive. At the end of 2012, the library decided to go solo and build its own Overdrive catalogue, with funding help from Friends of the Library.
“Nineteen more members joined the consortium, which made it way more difficult to reach consensus,” White said. “The proposal for the next contract included a ‘Buy it now’ button, which would take readers to Amazon. We didn’t want to be a sales vehicle for Amazon or a competitor for Maria’s Bookshop.”
The Ignacio and Cortez public libraries and Pine River Library District, which runs Lavenia McCoy Public Library in Bayfield, are still members of the consortium.
Of the 445,473 items circulated to the more than 31,000 library card holders at Durango Public Library in 2012, 15,512 were e-book downloads through the library’s website, a sharp increase from the 8,951 e-book checkouts in 2011. For those who don’t own their own tablet, Nook or Kindle, the library has about 30 e-readers with popular titles already downloaded on them.
White expects 2013 e-book circulation to be slightly lower as the library builds its catalogue, but anticipates a significant long-term increase for the future.
A challenge to get popular titles
Patrons can stop by Durango’s library and check out the latest bestsellers, including J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and John Sandford’s Mad River. But they’re out of luck when it comes to checking out the e-book versions of those titles. Not because the library hasn’t purchased the e-books for local readers, but because four of the major publishing houses – Penguin, Hachette, Simon & Shuster and MacMillan – refuse to sell their bestselling titles in e-book format to libraries. None of them returned calls or e-mails for comment.
“We get a noticeable number of requests for bestsellers in e-books,” White said. “People don’t understand, and keep asking ‘Why can’t you buy it?’”
Out of the top 15 fiction bestsellers on The New York Times list of March 4, nine were not available in e-book format to libraries. None of the top five nonfiction titles were available as e-books to libraries, and three of the top four children’s/young adult titles were also unavailable in digital form to libraries.
“I think they’re afraid what happened in the music industry will happen to publishing, where you sell one copy and 50,000 fly out the door,” said Jamie LaRue, the director of Douglas County Libraries and a member of the American Library Association’s Digital Content Working Group. “They also have this long-held suspicion that why would anyone buy a book when they can borrow it? That’s in spite of some convincing research that ‘power users’ – who visit the library more than two times a month – buy one e-book for every two they borrow, and the one bought is often one they had borrowed and sampled.”
Patrons can check out e-books from the library in two two ways:
They can download them through the library’s website onto their personal devices, and the books are coded so they will expire on the devices at the end of the checkout period. Only as many copies can be downloaded at one time as the library has purchased.
Or patrons can check out one of 30 e-readers from the library, each with books already permanently downloaded on them.
Random House, which publishes such popular authors as John Grisham and Sue Grafton, offers all of its catalogue, including e-books, to libraries, but tripled its price on e-books to libraries in 2012.
“When it comes to value to public libraries, we look at this being about content,” said Skip Dye, the vice president of library and academic marketing and sales for Random House. “There’s a value in our content being available on the day and date with the book at commercial retail. There’s a value in our content being available to patrons for unlimited loans. This is not like a single-reader consumer edition of a book, there’s a big difference.”
Random House and Penguin are working toward a merger later this year, which will make it the largest publishing house in the country with an estimated $4 billion in annual sales worldwide and 25 percent of all sales in the U.S., according to Publishers Weekly. Dye couldn’t comment on what the merger might mean for the sales of e-books to libraries because the discussion won’t start until the merger is complete.
HarperCollins also still sells its bestsellers in digital form to libraries, but each e-book is limited to 26 downloads before the library has to repurchase it.
“It depends on how lovingly a book’s used,’’ White said, “but many of our hardcover titles are good for far more than 26 checkouts.”
Lobbying the publishers
LaRue said he hasn’t seen much progress in lobbying efforts with publishers.
“I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot,” he said. “The total output of titles has tripled with independent publishers and self-publishers, and 16 of The New York Times’ top 100 bestsellers were self-published. The big challenge in the 21st century is getting people to notice your book. With the closing of the big bookstores, we are where people are flocking to find books.”
For White, the subject is more personal and goes to the fundamental purpose of libraries.
“It irks me the most,” he said, “that the people who can’t afford to buy these books are being denied access to them.”