This Is Why Your Library Doesn’t Own That E-book You Want

Shrinking or stagnant library budgets in the United States have made it increasingly difficult for libraries to purchase e-books, even as demand for them increases among patrons.  The average consumer pays less for perpetual access to an e-book than a library system pays for what is typically metered access– an agreement that the e-book purchase expires after one or two years or a certain number of loans.  This model is meant to ensure that publishers and authors continue to make money, the rationale being that libraries have to pay to replace physical copies due to wear-and-tear, and so should have to pay to replace e-books.  Yet it seems obvious that the average library is hardly replacing each physical book after a year or two and that this model hurts libraries in the long run, as they cannot afford to replace e-books at such a rate.  With new pricing and lending models being announced by several of the Big Five publishers, however, libraries will find themselves even more hard-pressed to purchase e-books for their patrons.

High prices and metered access already make it difficult for libraries to build and maintain e-book collections.  In October 2018, Penguin Random House changed from a perpetual access model to a metered model in which libraries can keep a copy of an e-book for two years.  In the process, they also slightly lowered e-book prices (for an adult title) from $65 to $55 according to American Libraries Magazine; YA titles were priced at $45 and children’s books at $35.  The move was appreciated by some libraries who feel demand for titles decreases over time, but was met with more hesitation from other libraries who worry about having to pay repeatedly for a popular book.  Meanwhile, Hachette, according to a July 2019 article in The Washington Post, now charges $65 for most adult titles, also for a two-year period.  And Simon & Schuster announced that they will change from one-year metered access to a two-year model with prices ranging from $38.99 to $52.99 starting August 1, 2019.  Additionally, Simon & Schuster will end perpetual access to audiobooks in favor of two-year access.  In each of these cases, libraries typically pay far more than the average consumer for a title that ultimately expires, making it a challenge for them to provide all the e-books their patrons might wish.

However, it is the recent announcement by Macmillan that they will place a two-month embargo on libraries purchasing new e-book titles that is really concerning librarians.  Last year, Macmillan experimented with a four-month ban on titles with its Tor imprint, saying libraries were hurting the company’s consumer sales.   Macmillan CEO John Sargent says that the embargo led to increased sales for Tor e-books.  So now Macmillan is repeating the claim that libraries decrease author payments.  As a result, they are changing their lending model to encourage the public to buy titles they will not be able to borrow from their libraries.

Starting November 1, 2019, Macmillan will offer libraries one perpetual access copy of new titles for half price ($30) during the first two months after release.  Once two months have passed, libraries can buy additional copies at full price ($60) for two years or 52 lends, whichever occurs first.  Librarians have responded by arguing that demand for hot titles often decreases after time, making the opportunity to buy new titles two months after release of little use to their patrons.  They also worry about being unable to provide enough copies for their patrons, and they question how Macmillan has come to the conclusion that libraries are negatively impacting e-book sales.

The American Library Association has spoken out against Macmillan’s embargo, urging library patrons to write to the publisher to request that they support the mission of libraries to provide equal access to all.  For now, however, the future looks bleak for libraries and their patrons as publishers seems to view libraries as an opponent.  But libraries are not opposed to publishers.  They are the places where readers are created, where patrons discover new authors, where people learn to love and support reading.  They are even, sometimes, places that create future buyers of books.

42 thoughts on “This Is Why Your Library Doesn’t Own That E-book You Want

  1. Elspeth says:

    The whole issue turns on the fact that publishers view every book checked out from a library as a title they could have sold. That’s not true of course, but it’s the rationale for these pricing schemes.

    It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost an appreciation for libraries as agents to promote literacy and education.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      That’s another good point. I read at least 100 books a year. Was I going to buy all of them? Lol, no. I don’t have a couple thousand dollars lying around to do that. Keeping those titles from libraries would just mean that I would never read them, never recommend them to others in real life, never give them free marketing on my blog, etc. I would never find new authors to love and maybe buy later.

      I also think making money by withholding titles from libraries is really short-sighted. Libraries create lifelong readers who often go on to buy books when they are in better financial positions to do so. Withholding books from people just means they won’t become readers, won’t ever become potential customers for these publishers.

      I also think it’s interesting that, awhile back, Brandon Sanderson put the full text of Warbreaker on his blog as he was writing it to see if it would depress sales. He doesn’t say what happened, but it looks like you can still access the full draft: https://brandonsanderson.com/books/warbreaker/warbreaker/. He mentions that, growing up, he used the library a lot for free books–then often bought the ones he liked. I think this is true for a lot of people.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Never Not Reading says:

    I liked how in the article from the Author’s Guild they said, basically, “ALA doesn’t approve of this, but we authors think it is the most fair way to ensure that authors make enough money.” Geez, be a little less transparent in your money grabbing, publishing industry.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I want publishers and authors to make money, too, obviously since that’s how they are able to give us more books. But penalizing library patrons to make money is a short-sighted way to earn more income. Libraries create readers who often go on to purchase books when they are financially able. The best way, long-term, to grow the publishing industry is, in my opinion, to create more readers, more potential buyers. Not to withhold books from certain people.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. BookerTalk says:

    I understand that authors and publishers need to be financially viable but libraries can be the only means of access that people on low incomes have. So to restrict ebooks doesn’t sit well with equality of opportunity.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Exactly! And it seems like a short-term strategy. Maybe Macmillan titles will make more money when they are first released. But, long-term, there’s a large swath of the public who won’t discover new titles or new authors by Macmillan because they don’t have access to them. And I don’t think you necessarily want to lose word-of-mouth recommendations or free marketing by bloggers (such as myself, haha) because people can’t afford to read some books. I read 100+ books a year and I do free marketing for most of them on the blog. I certainly can’t buy all those books, though, so, if I lose access through my library, I just wouldn’t read the books at all, unless I could find a friend to loan them.

      Like

  4. Paper Worlds says:

    It’s a difficult situation. Obviously, we want authors and everyone involved with producing a book to be paid, but I don’t think withholding books from libraries is the best way to go about it. I think it’s a bad move from publishers and they risk people forming a negative opinion about them and thinking they’re saying “we don’t want you to read our books if you can’t pay for your own copy”.

    I don’t think the publishers have fully thought through this decision or understood how libraries work. Just because a book is popular at the library does not mean it would have increased sales if the library didn’t have a copy. Maybe patrons can’t afford the book themselves. Maybe the patrons weren’t really that interested in the book, but they saw it at the library so they gave it a go. Maybe they don’t have space to store books in their house, so they only use the library. There are lots of people who use the library who would not buy books (or possibly even read books) if the library were not there. I’d like to see the data behind their assumption that libraries directly reduce their profits.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, precisely! Libraries loaning copies doesn’t necessarily mean lost sales. Of course, Macmillan is doing this after experimenting with just its Tor imprint, so presumably they saw some sort of sales increase. (Though no one’s seen any of their numbers.) But it’s very short-sighted thinking. Maybe you make up some more sales during release month. But what about all the future sales you lost because people never discovered a new author or series through the library? What about people who use the library because they can’t afford books–but later have more money and then become book buyers? They won’t have heard of some of these authors or books, perhaps. Or, if reading is made inaccessible to them to a large extent, maybe they won’t become lifelong readers at all.

      Like

  5. Milliebot says:

    Ugh. This is depressing. There has to be some middle ground that works for everyone! I obviously want authors and publishers to make money, but free access to books is very important to me too! And what they don’t understand is that people may still buy the book! I know many readers who will buy a book but then borrow the audio book from the library to read along or to make sure they can listen in the car then pick the book back to at home.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! Of course we want publishers and authors to do well. But by restricting access to books to people who can’t afford them? Not the best way. Libraries are wonderful promoters of books and authors. And I wish publishers and authors could see that.

      Like

  6. JMVarnerBooks says:

    It feels like the ongoing struggle of how to monetize content on the internet (ads? subscriptions? etc.) is impacting how traditionally print content (now in ebook format) is monetized.

    I had a school librarian tell me once several years ago she avoided purchasing ebooks with her limited funds as physical copies were only slightly more expensive and would outlast the limitations and restrictions on ebooks licensed to libraries. With prices like the ones quoted in this post, it is very easy to see why and how she could make that calculation.

    I have no idea about its pricing, but the Overdrive service my public library offers is fairly fantastic. Although, even with that, there is the concern that everything is funneled through one place (Overdrive).

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I can easily see how she would make those calculations, too. Of course, this then sadly limits the options available to people who may find e-books more accessible for whatever reason. Even if the librarian split the budget half and half between print and e-books, fewer e-books would be available!

      And I think Overdrive is just a middle-man service, so to speak. As far as I know, the prices in Overdrive are still generally set by the publishers.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    Thanks for sharing such an informative post, Krysta! I’ve always wondered what the rules and regulations were for libraries to obtain e-books, so this post published at a great time. It is disheartening to see some of the directions this situation is heading in tho.

    Like

  8. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    I’d read about how library budgets were being sucked dry by ebook acquisitions and realized that was why sometimes I could only find the hardback book. Because with books that may garner interest over time a book is actually the smarter choice due to the high ebook costs… But I totally hadn’t read about this!! It’s really going to cripple libraries to have to reacquire ebooks after 52 lends. I’d say this may very well kill ebook purchasing by libraries… Actually the sad thing is we don’t really own anything buying an ebook. If the service you buy them through quits then you’ll lose your entire library.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I wish libraries would talk more about this and explain matters to patrons! I’ve heard a few people wonder why the library doesn’t have more e-books, but I had to do research to find out all of this!

      Also, good point about buying e-books. I think a lot of people don’t realize you aren’t buying the book. You’re more buying the ability to access it.

      Like

  9. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I’m willing to believe that, short-term, withholding ebooks from libraries, especially at the national level (thousands of library, probably millions of people!) does make the publisher money. Not all, but some people will of course buy the book if they can’t easily borrow. This is especially true if they *only* need to buy Macmillan books because the other publishers are at the library. It will be interesting to see what happens if other publishers follow. People can only buy so many books.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Good point. I think this is a short-sighted policy. They may make money money initially from excited fans. But will they lose money long-term if new readers can’t find the books?

      Like

  10. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    Oh my gosh, I love this post! I actually had no idea how e-books work (and I’m still hella disappointed that you can’t donate them to libraries like you can physical copies, which is sometimes a deciding factor in which I buy).

    I sort of wonder how these studies are conducted and how it’s determined that it makes them more money by withholding from libraries. I want to read the actual study. What was the time frame they used? How exactly did they determine there was a direct correlation with the library versus some other factor?

    It sort of disappointing, as a society, that this is the bottom line. Yes, I know, big businesses are about money, but so many studies have proven how important literature and reading is (even as adults, not just developing brains). There are a lot of people who just don’t have the financial resources to spend all this money on books, and libraries are a good alternative. I’d hate to see that taken away for the sake of more money, especially if the study itself ends up being a bit flimsy.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I imagine the study is valid. Macmillan did a test run by withholding books from their Tor imprint from libraries last year. If the sales didn’t increase, I doubt they would have extended the policy. However, I would be interesting in knowing how high the increase was and if this is good practice long-term. Maybe sales spike short-term, but you lose money long-term because readers can’t find new books or authors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        Yes, but my point is that’s only one factor, right? Okay, so they withheld from libraries and it increased, but that’s only really valid if and only if they can attribute for all the other factors that can influence their sales and know that they all remained steady year-over-year. Which is why I was interested in how they actually conducted the study. I’m just nosy, is all, I guess. xD

        But I agree. If it was just a year, it seems like there are a lot of things that could have affected year-to-year sales, and I’d be interested if the trend holds for, say, five years. Then again, I don’t want them to try it for five years, either. xD

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, that’s a really good point. My understanding is that last year they specifically chose to withhold Tor books from libraries for four months to see what would happen with those books during that timeframe versus the rest of Macmillan’s imprints, so, theoretically, they would have seen an increase in consumer sales for Tor (nothing else) during those four months and then a decrease again after the four months ended. Of course, there could have been something that made Tor sales increase during those specific four months and then drop again, but it seems unlikely?

          They also mention that Tor sales tend to be consistent, so they were, I assume, looking at previous years to compare the numbers: https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=180906-Tor-Ebook-Embargo.

          But I’ve seen libraries also asking to see Macmillan’s data. And the article I link to has in interesting take that maybe decreasing e-book sales over the last few years are actually due to other factors like the rise of self-publishing and how Amazon sells e-books.

          I guess we could consider the new embargo a second experiment. If sales eventually stop going up or they lose money long-term because readers can’t discover new Macmillan titles through libraries, perhaps they’ll call the experiment a failure and end the embargo.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

            I’m going to really have to look into this deeper, because I’m so interested in it and also concerned about it.

            “It seems that given a choice between a purchase of an e-book for $12.99 or a frictionless lend for free, the American e-book reader is starting to lean heavily toward free.” — Macmillan CEO Sargent.

            I feel like this is sort of a duh? Like … are they unaware of their customer base at all? I’m also wondering … this is specifically looking at “e-book” sales, but I wonder about other things that could have impacted it. I mean, I won’t pay $13 for an e-book, period. Oftentimes, that’s more expensive or just as expensive as the physical copy, which I can either add to my personal library or donate to the actual library for others to enjoy. I imagine, though, if they had some e-book sales of, say, $2.99 and it was unavailable in libraries, maybe that did increase sales. I’d love to see data on the average price point at which the increase occurred and if it was actually at full price.

            I guess the most concerning thing, for me, is that they’re making some pretty big, bold statements, but at the same time, they seem unwilling to release the data that supports it, despite being asked by many sources. That seems a little shady to me. I guess I’m just a suspicious person.

            Great post, though! I’m not sure if I said that. It’s really got me thinking, and I’ll have to keep an eye on this and see how it develops now. 🙂

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              Ooh! Thanks for sharing! That is interesting. I suppose all of the imprints doing an embargo could be considered a new experiment. I do wonder how sales will be years from now, without library patrons being able to discover new authors and titles through the catalogs. Or if there’s even a way to measure that.

              Liked by 1 person

  11. Mei-Mei says:

    Ugh, that sucks. I was directly affected by that 4mo Tor embargo last year (I was trying to read Vicious), and I was so mad when I found that I’ve stopped buying Tor ebooks. Guess I’ll have to extend that to all of Macmillan.

    Like

  12. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Gosh I didn’t know any of this- but it makes sense of something I’ve been wondering for a while when I look at the seemingly randomness of ebooks becoming unavailable at libraries. Thanks for writing this!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I’ve heard patrons complain about the lack of e-books, too. Maybe libraries should have signs or posts about this issue so people understand. But I think some libraries may be afraid to disturb the waters or look negative.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah I think there should at least be a conversation about it. To be honest, I’m just grateful this service exists- it’s done wonders for me. But I’ve just wondered for a while how the catalogue works, cos it’s so unclear- so thanks for the informative post!

        Like

  13. Malka @ Paper Procrastinators says:

    This is such a great post because of how informative it is, but it made me so sad to read! I use my library for ebooks all the time and it makes me so sad to see that it’s going to hurt my library to keep these books for their patrons. Libraries are there for people who can’t afford books, and it seems cruel to deliberately cut off ebook access to libraries to force patron to buy the ebook. I really hope that something happens to ensure these plans don’t go through! If there’s any petition that needs signing, count me in!

    Like

  14. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I’ve been reading a lot about this lately, and it is quite discouraging. I understand that publishers need to make money (it is a business, after all), and I certainly don’t want publishers to go out of business because of their bottom-line, but it’s sad that libraries have to be the ones to suffer because of it, especially since they bring access to books to many people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get them. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, waiting four months for a book isn’t the end of the world, but I’m hoping other solutions are found.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think the least we can hope for is that people won’t blame libraries for “never having the book I want.” There seems to be so much space here for people who are against funding libraries to use this as a way to show that 1) libraries don’t actually provide the resources people want and 2) to demonstrate that fewer people are doing to the library…because it doesn’t have the books they want. If nothing else, we need awareness that this is NOT the fault of the libraries, AND we need people to keep going to the library and checking things out so local politicians can’t look at falling numbers and decide to cut funding.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think part of the issue is that people don’t I ow about the embargo. They only know there is a hold list that could be years! They aren’t going to check back in two months to see if the library remembered they can now purchase additional copies.

      Interestingly, Bibliotheca is now claiming Amazon is pushing publishers to see libraries as the enemy so the ebook sales are raised. But libraries k now people use Kindle, so they are not going to cut ties.

      Like

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