Publishers worry as e-books fly off virtual library shelves

Before Sarah Adler moved to Maryland last week, she used library cards from her Washington, D.C., home, and neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland to read books online. The Libby app, a nifty and easy-to-use service from the OverDrive company, gave him access to millions of titles. When she moved, she took another card and gained access to another library’s electronic collection, as well as a larger consortium to which the library belongs. She does almost all of her reading on her phone, through the app, catching a page or two between working on her novels and caring for her 2-year-old. With her husband also at home, she has been reading more books, mostly historical novels and literature, during the pandemic. In 2020, she estimates, she has read 150 books.

Adler buys books “rarely, she says, “which hurts me. As someone who hopes to be published one day, I feel bad for not giving money to authors.

Borrowers like Adler are driving publishers crazy. After the pandemic shuttered many physical library branches this spring, e-book checkouts are up 52% ​​from the same time last year, according to OverDrive, which partners with 50,000 libraries worldwide. . Hoopla, another service that connects libraries with publishers, says 439 library systems in the United States and Canada have joined since March, boosting its membership by 20%.

Some public libraries, new to digital collections, enjoy exposing their readers to a new type of reading. The library in Archer City, Texas, which has a population of 9,000, received a grant to join OverDrive this summer. The new e-book collection “has been really great,” says library director Gretchen Abernathy-Kuck. “Much of the past few months have been stressful and negative.” Ebooks are “something positive. It was something new. »

But the growing popularity of e-books in libraries has also exacerbated longstanding tensions between publishers, who fear digital borrowing will eat away at their sales, and public librarians, who are trying to serve their communities during a once-in-a-generation crisis. . Since 2011, the five big publishers in the industry – Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster and Macmillan – have limited the lending of ebooks in libraries, either by duration – two years, for example – or by number of boxes – most often, 26 or 52 times. Readers can browse, download, join waitlists, and return digital library books from the comfort of their home, and books are automatically deleted from their devices at the end of the loan period.

The result: Libraries typically pay between $20 and $65 per copy, an industry average of $40, according to a recent survey, compared to the $15 an individual might pay to buy the same ebook online. Instead of owning an e-book copy forever, librarians must decide at the end of the license term whether or not to renew.

The growing demand for digital materials has prompted some librarians to change what they buy, even as they fear reduced budgets due to the economic downturn. A recent survey of 400 librarians in the United States and Canada found that a third have been spending less on physical books, audiobooks and DVDs, and more on digital versions since the start of the pandemic. Twenty-nine percent had their budgets frozen or reduced.

But publisher licensing terms make it “very difficult for libraries to afford e-books,” says Michelle Jeske, director of the Denver Public Library and president of the Public Library Association. “Pricing models don’t work well for libraries.” Between January and July, the Denver system saw 212,000 more books downloaded than the same time last year, an increase of 17%.

Last year, Macmillan went a step further by limiting each library system to a single digital copy of a new title – at half its usual price – until it had been on the market for two months. . Macmillan CEO John Sargent said he fears there are also little friction in the lending of e-books in libraries. “Borrow a book in [the pre-digital days] days required shipping, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forget to pick them up on time,” he wrote in a letter announcing the policy. “In today’s digital world, there is no such friction in the marketplace.” Many librarians, arguing that Macmillan’s policies hurt large urban systems that were already struggling to meet the demand for new and notable books, organized to boycott the publisher.