Libraries and Ebooks

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

It can be just as fast and easy to order an ebook from the library as to buy it online, and it costs nothing. Why would anyone buy an ebook from the publisher if the library has it for free?

So why would a publisher sell ebooks to libraries?

This is a legitimate, big problem, which affects authors just as much and as directly as it does libraries and publishers. It has no quick fix. To solve it will take a complete and painful rethinking and re-organisation of the whole publishing industry.

But many corporate publishers, without seeking a long-term strategy, consulting no interest or value but their own, have reacted with mere panic greed.

Some, exhibiting all the foresight, generosity, and public spirit of a Florida alligator, outright refuse to sell their ebooks to libraries. Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan are among them.

This policy can be summed up as: Libraries can go to hell.

Other publishers, perhaps hoping to keep some appearance of a certain degree of goodwill towards men, limit themselves to making it hard for the library to stock ebooks and inconvenient for you to get them from the library. They call it “inserting friction.” A kind of anti-Vaseline.

Currently various publishers are employing various forms of “friction:”

  • “Embargo” (some publishers call it “Windowing”): the publisher refuses libraries access to recently published ebooks, especially best sellers. The library must wait as long as 18 months to get the book.
  • Snatch-back: Instead of selling an ebook to the library, the publisher rents it for a certain length of time or a certain number of uses — after which the ebook vanishes, pouf! The library must pay for it all over again.Harper Collins sells an ebook to a library for 26 individual uses, then the book vanishes and the library is forced to purchase another.
  • Selective price-gouging: The publisher charges libraries more than other customers for best-sellers.Random House announced in March that it was increasing the cost of ebooks to libraries, in some cases tripling it.
  • Pay-on-Demand: Require the library to pay the publisher a sum each time the ebook is ordered.This is an ironic reversal of the system obtaining in Europe whereby the author is paid a small sum every time the book is taken out of a library. European libraries can do this because their evil nanny governments support them with money. No American public library could afford this kind of pay-on-demand either to the author or the publisher.

And the absurdest piece of meanness yet:

  • Make the Old Lady Hobble Downtown: Every library that can afford to gives patrons access to music, audio books, databases, etc. via their home computer, but some publishers want libraries to allow access to ebooks only to patrons who actually, physically, come to the library. You have to be there in person and hold out your hand, see, so the librarian can put those valuable electrons in it.

But, but, but — libraries have always offered their books for free. So, how come print publishers didn’t refuse to sell books to libraries? Why didn’t they didn’t “insert friction”?

Well, partly because many publishers had a sense of responsibility, or at least a degree of shame. But also because they were aware that library circulation is more likely to increase book sales than to cut into them.

Every time a library buys a book, the publisher is more likely to sell that author’s books. Library Journal conducted a survey in 2011 about the buying habits of library users; more than half reported that they’d bought books by an author whose book they’d read in the library. As Library Journal says, “The public library is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market.” And, talking to the Christian Science Monitor, Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association, reported “Some libraries have a ‘buy it now’ button for people who don’t want to wait [for an e-book from a library, or don’t want it to suddenly disappear from their reader]. We’re doing a lot, frankly, to drive people to buy.”

But damn the facts, full speed ahead! The part of the publishing industry controlled by corporations for immediate profit is determined to see public libraries as competitors — even if they lose profits by doing so.

For a long time most Americans agreed on the importance of the free public library to the well-being of the community and the country. A publisher then would hesitate to be seen deliberately making things hard for libraries. But reactionary ideology has weakened the idea of community; muddy thinking has convinced people that information on the Internet is free; and libraries are being conveniently misrepresented as mere outmoded warehouses for print books. Readers may assume that libraries don’t and won’t buy and circulate ebooks.

In fact, despite the expense of constantly changing technologies, the non-support of voters bleating anti-tax mantras, and the aggressive tactics of corporate publishers, the great public libraries have kept abreast with the electronic age, and they very much want to buy and circulate free ebooks.

Since corporations don’t consider human rights or needs, only corporate profits, they feel free to use tactics that infringe, ignore, or flout the rights of readers. They are in fact practicing commercial censorship. They are keeping books from us.

If the part libraries play in distributing ebooks gets “frictioned” into insignificance, it will be easier for the corporations to take further control of what ebooks you personally can obtain, how long a book will stay on your reader before you have to pay for it again, and whatever else they want to control. If they see profit in doing any of this, they’ll do it. If small publishers try to sell the books they don’t sell, the big corporations will eliminate the small publishers.

At this point, the U.S. Government shows very little promise of exerting any kind of intelligent control over predatory publishing corporations, and the Department of Justice even seems to be colluding with them.

Libraries are essential because they keep permanent collections — even of unpopular books, even of impermanent, seemingly valueless items — a samizdat from 1940, a newspaper from 1933. Ebooks, including self-published ebooks, would become part of permanent library collections, which could then join the worldwide network of electronic libraries.

The existence or disappearance of a library’s permanent collection isn’t a sexy issue. But it’s absolutely basic to access to information and to the continuity of human knowledge.

If ebooks largely replace printed books, and the public libraries are decimated or eliminated as a permanent resource open to everybody, we may be able to access books only through the corporations. It will not be easy to get a book the corporations have decided is unprofitable, outdated, unnecessary, or unpleasing; it may be very difficult to find out whether a text has been cut or tampered with; there may be no way to know that a book ever existed…. The importance of free, independent electronic libraries, such as Project Gutenberg, is inestimable.

We’d be wise to keep our information base as broad as possible, by supporting the existing public libraries in their heroic and amazingly successful effort to carry on their job in the electronic age.

The goal of the public library has been to give anyone who needs or wants it permanent, unlimited, free access to books. All books.

The goal of the public library in the electronic age is what it always was: to give permanent, unlimited, free access to books — print books, ebooks, all books — to everyone.

Is that worth supporting, or what?



Many thanks to Vailey Oehlke, Director of the Multnomah County Library, for fact-checking, facts, and references.

A useful link:



Libraries and Ebooks — 27 Comments

  1. It is worth mentioning that Book View Cafe is getting its catalog into libraries. If you know of a library system that ought to have our works, have them email us!

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  3. Actually, public libraries are about stocking a good-sized chunk of the books that the public requests and that the librarians think sound good, a good-sized chunk of books which are educational or classic, and which fit in the budget. It’s never been about “all books.”

    I admit that for some folks with very big public library systems, it may sometimes seem like it’s “all books.” But even the NYC, Chicago, and LA public library systems are not exactly trying to be the Library of Congress, and running a few book searches will reveal “all books” to be a pretty clear fallacy.

    The other thing not being mentioned here is the availability of ebooks not in English in US public libraries. Admittedly, this is a part of the library that many ignore; but my city’s system has included thousands of books in many other languages since the early 1900’s and before; the “new” Spanish language section is the least of it.

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  5. “Is that worth supporting, or what?”

    Well, yes, but so are writers. And even publishers. It has become technically feasible, even easy, to distribute texts for free. But then how to support all the work on a book that is done before the first impression on paper is made? In money, this is typically half the cover price. Tough question, and no firm answers yet.

    Maureen, academic libraries are also part of the story—they’re the ones that take on the archival job. Private libraries and government repositories have a part to play, too.

    A technical issue here that I have seldom seen discussed is that ebooks are ephemeral: there is no digital storage medium that is known to last as long as good ink on good paper. It’s an engineering problem that, if addressed, would probably yield significant results in a few years, but I know of no organizations or individuals addressing it.

    • No one is saying that writers or even publishers are not deserving of being paid for ebooks. They are real goods in the same way that a paper books are. Libraries would like to pay something similar to the price that you as a private citizen would pay for the same ebook. It is this way with with print–infact they usually pay less per book than you would because they buy in larger numbers. Make no mistake, when an ebook is lent through a library borrowing system it has a limited life on the patron device. It is not being lent indefinately. The system currently in place limits the life of the individual ebook file, based on the set lending period. Only after that time has passed, and after the file has been rendered unreadable on the first patrons device, can another copy of the ebook be lent to the next patron. It is the same model as it is in print, ie. “book goes out, book comes back, book goes out next person.” Only in the digital world nothing needs to be returned it is just automatically deleted–or at least it ceases to be readable on that patrons device.

      In the current system, in most cases, libraries pay close to 5 times (sometimes more, sometimes less) what a private citizen pays for an ebook ($100 compared to $20 say). This is for one (1) LICENSE–meaning that they can lend it to one patron at a time, just like a paper book. NOT CRAZY?

      This is what the article is talking about–not not electronic data storage issues compared to those in print. By the way I would say that these data storage issues have in fact be solved to great extent see: . The 3-2-1 Rule is about back up of digital photography, but can serve as a perfectly reasonable means for back up and catastrophic data loss prevention for anything that can be reduced to 1s and 0s.

      People everywhere have been talking about this for over a decade.

      But it doesn’t even enter into the ebook debate since publishers seem to feel that they should be able to revoke a libraries LICENSE to lend an ebook whenever they feel like it.

  6. To my simple mind, it seems that the largest piece of value publishers traditionally had to offer was their ability to produce and distribute books. Physical books need special equipment and skills to make, and providing them was a real service that authors and readers were willing to pay for. Now, it costs virtually nothing to produce and distribute electronic copies. Publishers still offer some value in editing, formatting and promotion, but expect to make as much profit as ever.

    I don’t think we should give it to them. We need a strategy to bypass publishers that over-value the remaining services they provide. I’d be much happier paying authors directly each time I read a book or story. There are far more authors than publishers that I care about supporting.

    How do we make this happen? What is a fair price for reading a novel or a short story? What is a fair price for the right to treat a copy like a physical book (unlimited rereads and loans, but not reproduction)?

  7. If the copy is digital, why not lend it to 5, 50, or 500 patrons at once?

    And lending is only reasonable if you are denying someone else access to the book. If it is data that isn’t the case. There is no reason why you should have to check a book back if you’ve leant it. It’s only replicating a physical experience that is no longer relevant.

  8. Thank you for a reasoned, reasonable, and inspiring post. Libraries are willing to limit loans to one person at a time (and to pay for several instances of a popular book) to emulate the way print is loaned – not because they like scarcity, but because they understand publishers and authors would find that threatening to their income. Even so, publishers want to make ebooks less shareable than a printed book. This is their chance to disable sharing, which makes me think they would just as soon libraries ceased to exist. That would be a disaster for book culture, for readers, for writers, and for publishers, but logic and evidence are not part of their decision-making, just an ugly mix of greed and fear.

    Full disclosure: I am a librarian. I am also a reader and have published a few books. In all of those roles, it’s important to me that the kind of sharing libraries do is not disabled. And like the author, I am concerned about a future when the custodians of our culture are corporations, not the people.

  9. Very interesting and relevant article, thank you.

    Perhaps this problem can be solved by looking at how popularity on the internet is converted into money, namely advertising. Ebooks from the library could contain a small product or company logo(or several) on every virtual page. This way everyone wins: the library and reader get the book for free, the author and relevant company make money, and there’s still some incentive to actually buy the advertisement-free ebook online.

    The traditional library book reader might scoff at the idea of having advertising in his book, but this is, after all, a new era.

    • Apologies, I missed this part,

      “Every time a library buys a book, the publisher is more likely to sell that author’s books. Library Journal conducted a survey in 2011 about the buying habits of library users; more than half reported that they’d bought books by an author whose book they’d read in the library.”

      It’s already an ‘everyone wins’ situation, no extra anti-Vaseline from me required. And then there is the far more vital point concerning the availability of free and independent information.

      I will gladly give libraries my support.

  10. Pingback: Hey Authors! Where’s the Library Love When it Comes to Ebooks? | John the Librarian

  11. Personally, I can’t stand even the idea of reading an *electronic* work by Ursula K. Le Guin. I want to hold her work in my hands, savor the page which has drawn me in, experience the world that now support my feet, surrounds me, and tempts me to sit for hours, turning page after page, taking step after step.

    As well, I can do this – read- anywhere, even in a power outage, with no worries of batter life. I can spill tea on the book (gasp!) and not worry about sizzling electronics. I can burn it to keep warm (now that is a worst-case scenario).

    Personally, I’d prefer to go to a pay-library of some sort, e.g., a yearly renewal fee for my library card (yes, such a pain, I’m sure many will cry; well, get over it; life does not owe anyone convenience).

    So, there.

  12. it is worth supporting, yes!
    Free libraries gave us one Ray Bradbury, and it is to be hoped there are other potential RBs out there, avidly turning the pages.
    Maybe one of the biggest challenges that the digital world proposes is that the copy command is implicit in all computing languages. It’s free, it’s inherent to the bones of any program syntax.
    Digital generosity clashes against human greed. Can we seriously hope that publishers will come up with a business model that supports writers and readers? I don’t think so…

  13. A small but, I think, important point from a UK author: UKL refers to ‘Evil Nanny’ governments forcing libraries to pay authors money. This is substantially inaccurate.

    In the UK and in Ireland there is a government funded organisation called the PLR (Public lending Right) Office which monitors the borrowing of all titles in public libraries and pays authors at a rate of (currently) just under six pence per withdrawal. The largest amount that any author may receive per annum is £6,600. Around 280 authors in the EU make it to this upper limit. Most receive substantially less, but many still count it as a major source of income, especially children’s authors for whom advances may be low while borrowing rates are high. This money has nothing to do with the money allotted to library budgets by the government and has no affect whatsoever on library spending. It does not come from the libraries at all, but from the PLR fund, which is completely separate. The entire budget of the PLR Office (including the money for payments) is just over seven million per year, which is less than the annual cost for civil service toilet paper.

    It is a legal right, enshrined within the legislation of the U.K., for authors to receive this money, and has been so since 1979. The PLR Office is much beloved as an institution and everyone has a great deal of respect for its staff. I feel quite sorrowful at the dismissive mention of it in this article.

  14. I’m sure calm well reasoned articles like this will help libraries and publishers reach some accord.

    That was sarcasm.

    Have you ever worked in the real world? Companies do need to make money to say afloat and it’s not a sin. Libraries need to accept that there will be additional costs to provide books in ebook format. Costs that cover the benefits of ebook access. I’m pretty sure patrons will survive even if they have to, god forbid, drive to the library like they’ve been doing their whole lives.

  15. To Zoe: Thank you for the info about Public Lending Right. I thought it was government supported — should have checked.
    In any case, I envy you the arrangement.
    My comment about “evil nanny governments” was sarcastic. You in Great Britain are, I think, spared this kind of language, used by American reactionaries in their blind horror of “creeping socialism.”

  16. Ursula: Well, even if the sentiment is there in some Conservative party members, I don’t think any British parliamentary candidate would actually dare use that kind of phrase; so yes, I’m unused to seeing it. That’s what jolted me into responding. Even though I don’t make much money out of PLR myself, I do think it’s a wonderful organisation and an all-too-rare example of government doing something concrete to support struggling authors *and* libraries, because of course it encourages writers to donate their time and energy to library events and helping to promote literacy. Anyway, thank you for responding so graciously.

  17. A well-considered article, which flags up some of the nuances often submerged in this ongoing debacle, although the factor of mainstream publishing houses licensing arrangements for ebooks (providing no actual ownership by the library over digital editions it has paid for, for example) needs to be given a much wider airing as it radically shifts the model of ownership of, and access to, public library collections. Thanks UKL for knowledgeably adding to the debate. In the meantime, *we* will maintain our physical library manifestation to avoid such digital chimeras and continue to reach the parts other libraries have yet to reach.

  18. This is amazing, and it’s so nice to see an author not only supporting libraries but also really understanding what they do, why, and how (I’m in library school, so I’m all for people knowing that yes, you need a Master’s degree, and no, I’m not just going to be shelving books). I already thought you were awesome when it came to diversity and race issues, and now I get to add that you’re just generally genius and amazing about everything. Cheers!

    As far as the actual issues, I don’t really understand where the precedent is for the suggestions of inserting advertising into books or having pay-for checkout policies for ebooks. I probably don’t understand that because there is no precedent. And I don’t think we need to start one. Publishers should sell ebooks to libraries the same way they sell regular books (with appropriate anti-piracy mechanisms, since obviously printed books, by virtue of being cumbersome, are pretty protected). Period. End of story.

    • I really agree with the thrust of this essay, and even more that the European system mentioned – having the state pay authors a small amount based on use – would be superior. I do think, though, that some compromises are acceptable to make writing work, and let writers thrive, in the system that we live in at the moment. (We need to change the system, but that’s another story). “Friction” is a terrible idea – but I can accept charging libraries more than individuals for a multi-user license. This has long been the case with periodical subscriptions, where the library rate can be much higher than the individual rate. This practice is subject to abuse (see Elsevier), and is dying out as more and more journals are sold as part of packages rather than through subscriptions, but it can work well, and libraries seem to accept it. (Back in the early 1990s, I was treasurer and circulation manager of a small journal that was going through some difficulties, and was astonished to receive a hefty check from Ebsco for one-year renewals from libraries which had not received ANY issue from us for 18 months! It paid off – the journal is now thriving – but to me it showed that libraries do understand that publishers need revenue, too.)

      This is not a formal practice in the world of books – but libraries do often buy the hardcover edition of a newly-released book, rather than waiting for a trade paperback or mass market edition, partly to serve their readers, and publishers price the hardcovers accordingly.

      So I don’t have a real objection to a ‘library price’ for e-books, as long as it is reasonable. And I think it’s perfectly legitimate if you have to login with your library card number before you can download a book. Publishers have a legitimate fear that once they have sold one ebook to a library, no one else will have to pay them.

      All this is just to say that – in the present model – publishers have to cover their costs just like the rest of us. New models are developing, though, especially in the music industry: self-publishing, crowd funding,direct web sales — and I think publishing can and should go that way.

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  22. In any ghetto, or bad social housing area. Its the libraries and churches that are the bastions of civilisation. In libraries all knowledge resides to be had for free in a warm sheltering place that belongs to all of us. One could say much similar with churches. Children living under terrible stress and degradation, what joy it is for them to visit the library and find escape to other worlds, books for succour. How to do school work with feckless parents not paying out for books, so many aids to study in the library. Old people love libraries its brain extension for them. And the homeless for warmth and shelter. The library is one of the few social warm freely accessible places left were one can even sit down. You take away the libraries and the churches and it will be an end to civilisation.