Why Your Library May Not Have the E-Book You Want

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

While most small presses sell all their books freely and happily to libraries, the “Big Five” publishers continue to be terrified by the idea of letting public libraries have their e-books, and to punish libraries for even trying to get their e-books to customers.

The corporations’ confused and panic-driven search for an “acceptable business model” for the library e-book has led to some truly grotesque solutions:

  • HarperCollins rents a library the license to an e-book for 26 uses, after which the license expires and the book goes poof.
  • Hachette sells e-books to libraries at three times the print price for the first year — and one and a half times print price thereafter.
  • Macmillan sells only its Minotaur crime and mystery e-books to libraries, asking $25 apiece — again about three times as much as anybody else has to pay.
  • Random House has raised prices for some of its e-books by 300 percent.
  • Simon and Schuster, which previously refused to sell e-books to libraries at all, is now trying out a pilot program: A library will be able to buy license for any e-book in the S&S catalogue for one year, and each book can be lent any number of times — “so long as it is being used by one borrower at a time.”

Perhaps we should be glad that this experiment is being carried out only in parts of New York City.

People in New York City are tough. They will not mind being followed home from the library by a person in a purple cloak and grey tights, known as S&SMan, who will move into their apartment and stay there as long as the book checked out, watching closely to be sure that nobody else in the family reads it or is even looking over the borrower’s shoulder….

And here are some truly remarkable figures:

In October, 2012, a certain best-selling book sold in print for $15.51.

If you bought the e-book on Amazon, the price was $9.99.

If your public library bought the e-book, they paid $84.00 for it.

So, dear reader, if your library doesn’t have the e-book you’d like to read, please don’t complain to your librarian. Complain to your publisher. Tell him to wake up and get real.


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About Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her recent books include The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories and Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems: 1960-2010. King Dog: A Screenplay for the Mind's Eye, Music and Poetry of the Kesh, music by Todd Barton, words by Ursula K. Le Guin, an MP3 collection, and “The New Atlantis” are available in the Book View Cafe ebookstore.
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29 Responses to Why Your Library May Not Have the E-Book You Want

  1. Charles Barouch says:

    I’m a small press publisher and I’d like to make my books available to Libraries (U.S. and abroad). Can anyone share contact information so I can reach the right people and get my books into libraries?
    All help appreciated.

  2. KatieHop says:

    High five Ursula! Librarians everywhere are saying a very exasperated “THANK YOU” for writing this article.

  3. Ebooks are actually cheaper for libraries. They do not have to catalog, shelve, house, and check in or check out an ebook. Tell your librarian! If your library is a public library, you are paying for all the books and services therein already, through your taxes. You should get services that meet your needs.

    • J. Andrews says:

      They do catalog the ebooks if they want them to appear in their catalog, which many libraries do. It also still costs staff time in book selection. And the support, you guys! You don’t even know how much libraries are supporting Overdrive and alll the ereader manufacturers. You don’t know just how many people buy ereaders or get them as gifts and have no idea how to use them until they come to a library where a helpful librarian talks them through it. Amazon should be paying libraries for that service!

      And with a physical book, the library can recoup the cost when the demand drops off by selling it in a booksale, or selling it to places like Better World Books, or even just selling it for scrap. You can’t resell an ebook when you have 40+ e-copies of Dan Brown’s latest tome that hardly anyone wants to read anymore.

      Because that’s how it works. The libraries aren’t buying /one/ copy of an e-book, they are buying as many as the demand requires. Because you do have to check out and check in the books, one borrower at a time. That’s not unique to S&S.

    • Sylvia Richardson says:

      Actually libraries do catalog e-books or no-one would know we had them.
      Most libraries don’t create original cataloging and processing in-house, but rather have a bulk vendor handle that. I can assure you that average print books do not cost libraries anywhere near $80.00 to buy/catalog/label. AND a print book stays with the library until it wears out or we choose to remove it if it becomes dated, rather than vanishing after 26 uses. Circulations of more than 100 times are quite common before wear (and therefore replacement) becomes an issue.
      Many thanks to Ursula LeGuin for her support–and for her wonderful novels!

      • Barbara Morse says:

        Also keep in mind that libraries are the place to go for books that are out of print. If a book disappears after only 25 uses, where is one to go to get the older titles. Continuing to pay annually to keep books on a virtual shelf means no retrospective collection!

    • Ebooks are cheaper after the initial investment of technology, owning an Ereader, having a high-speed connection to download, and of course recharging the device. Oh, and there’s all that storage, servers, the “Cloud.” Not quite the paperback at the beach that most of us grew up with. For a lot of people the cheap ebook is still beyond their means. Libraries try to level that breach. Libraries haven’t put any publisher out of business in the past and I doubt we are the big threat to their bottom line that they think we are.

  4. Rick York says:

    Thanks for this comment. I have long since given up trying to get e-books from my local library (Multnomah County). The selection stinks and the Overdrive interface is terrible. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the unpleasantness of Overdrive is deliberate.

    The big publishers cannot seem to get it through their thick skulls that overpricing e-books and making them difficult to use will only encourage piracy. Unfortunately, now that the Federal Government has become prime protector of the media industry, we can turn everyone into criminals.

    The old system just won’t work today. We, readers, authors and publishers, need to develop a system which, while not as lucrative as the old, will give everyone concerned fair compensation.

    As newspapers and magazines have learned, the digital revolution is not good for everyone.

    • Liz D says:

      Overdrive had a ghastly, horrible user interface until just recently. It surely put many people off ebooks from libraries, but they got their act together. The interface is excellent now, and they deliver the help/troubleshooting themselves which (thank goodness) finally took that horrific burden off the library’s tech support people.

      Thank you, Ursula, for helping make this issue with library ebooks more widely known. As a part time librarian, I know how patrons value the ebooks we can offer — and I can see how they use ebooks (and libraries) to discover authors and subjects they might not want to (or be able to) include in their own must-buy budgets.

      • Richard says:

        Sorry, but the Overdrive interface still stinks, and so does their selection tool. It’s almost impossible to browse if you’re any kind of discriminating reader.

    • E.Peros says:

      It’s called friction and yes i’m sure some of it is on purpose…

  5. Damigiana says:

    Thank you so much for this important reminder. Many European languages have much smaller readership than English so prices for print books are higher, sometimes much higher. Libraries usually have paper copies, exactly for the reasons you mention. Here’s hoping that by the time we catch up with the e-book bandwagon these problems will have been ironed out. Also, let’s hope paper books will stay with us for a long, long time :).

  6. Virginia, aka Willowgreen says:

    Well, that explains why I have yet to find a single library e-book that I want to read. The one book I did borrow — which looked like a harmless little romance — turned out to be one of the worst books I’ve ever tried to read, and now I can’t get rid of it! Clearly the whole e-book borrowing process is not quite ready for prime time.

    • Chris J says:

      I certainly agree with you on this. It’s interesting to note your use of ‘prime time’, given that folks can now view their content whenever they want, regardless of original broadcast time and date.

      What new term might be in the offing someday?

  7. Pingback: Ursula K. LeGuin on eBooks, Libraries, and Publishers | The Travelin' Librarian

  8. George Barbour says:

    I would like to see the heads of all the major and/or minor libraries go before Congress and press to have the publishers brought up on racketeering charges; because, in short, that is exactly what it is they (the publishers) are doing.

  9. Berni says:

    Our local library had a talk on ebooks and gave us this information. (This was last year when only 3 of the publishers would sell to libraries.) The librarian said he didn’t mind Harper Collins’ rules much as they track to replacing hard copy after a number of uses. It’s the jacked up prices that really hurt the libraries.

  10. Connor says:

    Ursula, I normally totally agree with your take on ebooks, but how are any of the solutions you list grotesque? It seems as though you’re suggesting that the ideal solution is for publishers to allow libraries to lend out an unlimited number of copies of any particular ebook simultaneously, while paying the publisher only a nominal fee.

    If that’s what you’re suggesting, that “library” already exists: it’s called The Pirate Bay.

    • Kara says:

      Excuse me, but I don’t really see how she said anything about lending out unlimited copies of an e-book. Though it IS ridiculous if you can’t lend out a book for someone. I mean, if I ask someone who has a library card to lend out a book for me and if we’re close friends and they know they can trust me with it – what’s the trouble if they lend out a book for me?
      I guess that might be what she meant.

    • Chris J says:

      I don’t find the publishers’ solutions grotesque, simply profit centered and clueless about how much the consumer is willing to pay, be it a library or a consumer in a bookstore.

      After nearly sixty years as a reader, I no longer feel any need to ‘possess ‘ most books that I’ve read. As a voracious sci-fi and mystery et al reader, I used to keep all those books and cart them from one place to another. I admit to a warm feeling looking up at a wall full of varied books, but…no longer. With the virtual cornucopia of entertainment options out there, be it comics, film, or books, I rarely have time to reread a book, and the price of digital entertainment is so much lower than print and my iPad is so useful for reading and other things, I hardly miss books. I still tend to prefer certain subjects in print…cookbooks, reference books, and such.

      Moreover, old classic books at ebook prices of $6.99 or more (ridiculous) can still be had in used bookstores for half cover or even $2-3 so….

  11. The big publishers still have issues with e-books, huh… You would think they had learned to adapt by now!

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  14. Wendi says:

    If I have a printed book – which I did not write – can I make it into an ebook and sell it online?

  15. So glad to see someone state the issues with simplicity and clarity. May I link to this from my library blog?

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