Publishers Are Wasting Your Tax Dollars on Ebooks.
Not only are eBooks easy to access, their portability and lightweight format allow people to bring piles of their favorite reads everywhere and hold a large number of books in the collection without worrying about the space. Libraries have played a major role in giving people access to ebooks. These books are loaned out to library patrons just like physical copies of titles and that means community members who struggle with access or even those that just want to try out a new book can easily do so through their local public library.
However, libraries and academic institutions have faced a series of challenges when it comes to maintaining their ebook collections and it all stems from their relationships with publishers.
Publishers are charging libraries an exorbitant amount for access to ebook titles which ends up coming out of your taxpayer dollars.
Libraries are meant to be places where community members can seek help and resources without worry of financial barriers or judgement. With the way agreements are trending, tax dollars are directly being used to subsidize publishing companies rather than contributing to the community in other useful ways.
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Libraries and Ebook Lending
Most libraries have offered ebook lending services to their patrons. This gives community members the ability to check out digital copies of a book using their library card and have the book in their possession for a few weeks just like they would with a print copy of the book. This is a process that not only works well for community members in general, it makes reading and library use super accessible for those in the senior or disabled community. Ebook lending helps resolve accessibility problems for those with mobility issues, are homebound, or need large print books. These vulnerable populations are easily served when ebooks are made widely available and free through the library.
Complex and Limited Publisher Agreements
The relationship between publishers and libraries comes with many caveats. This is because many of these big name publishers are still trying to navigate sales in the digital space. They face challenges from new technology as well as competition from Amazon. Publishing companies also claim that library ebook lending is digging into their bottom line with average revenues for library ebook reads coming in at a small fraction of what they would make on a retail read.
The costs for libraries to acquire digital copies to lend out ends up being much higher than it would cost them to purchase physical copies. For one, libraries themselves are subject to a book loan imposed upon them by publishers. For example, some publishers will require libraries to repurchase their titles after a certain time period or a certain amount of circulations. HarperCollins implemented a 26 loan system back in 2011 at the same cost as a hardcover. This means libraries would lose access to the digital copy after it had been borrowed 26 times and would need to repurchase.
While other publishers offer unlimited use per title, they charge libraries three times the amount of a physical book if it is a new titler, with the price dropping only after the book has already been in circulation for a year or so. Hachette Book Group follows this policy when it comes to selling their titles. Libraries pay extra to acquire a copy of the simultaneously released ebook so that their patrons can have access to the newest titles this publishing group offers. Also, keep in mind that all of these operate under a one-copy, one-user system which means that only one library patron can “check out” a title at a time even though digital copies could technically be loaned out to multiple people at a time.
Recently, publishing companies have also placed limits on how libraries are allowed to distribute newest titles. In July of 2019, Macmillan announced that libraries would only be allowed one purchase of new titles during the first eight weeks of its release. With the way borrowing works, this means only a couple of patrons would have access to new titles during that time period and waiting lists would be extremely long.
The reasoning behind this was Macmillan’s fears that “library lending was cannibalizing sales”. The company referenced a test embargo they used to collect data that informed this decision which was not publicly shared. Obviously this announcement led to immediate backlash from the library community which felt that the valuable work libraries were doing in providing equitable access to people was underappreciated.
Amazon is another recent example of a publisher that has jumped onboard the trend. The company does not allow any of their digital titles published through Amazon Publishing to be used by libraries and their patrons. Libraries still have access to print copies but restricting ebook access severely limits the accessibility for community members.
COVID-19 Impact On Ebooks In Academic Settings
Academic institutions are also facing similar obstacles especially with most courses going online this past year due to the pandemic. The academic ebook market is becoming “unaffordable, unsustainable, and inaccessible” for students everywhere. Ebooks are costing libraries significantly more money than their print counterparts, for example, a basic fundamentals of business textbook in the UK which is £65.99 in print costs £528 as a single user ebook. This means students are having a difficult time accessing books they need for their studies and professors and librarians are faced with the difficulty of cutting their book lists.
American school systems have also noticed the effects of the pandemic on the pricing of their educational materials. Oftentimes, administrators have no choice but to comply with giant publishers because they are locked into contracts with the district’s choice of software providers. Many staples books that were once commonly reused each year now come in subscription bundles that cost schools significantly more than they should.
The library media supervisor in the Menifee Union School District has experienced an increase in ebook prices especially since the start of the pandemic. The Diary of Anne Frank costs 27 dollars per student for a 12 month subscription. With 10 books in the district’s curriculum and over a thousand students per grade level, this leads to a required budget of $200,000 just to cover book expenses. This becomes an annual expense that school districts need to account for due to the subscription model they’re subject to.
Ebook Access Needs to Be Expanded
There are plenty of organizations trying to address the problem. The American Library Association (ALA) released a statement in support of librarians, demanding #eBooksForAll and explaining the detrimental effects this has on providing information for all. Their petition received over 160,000 signatures when it was first released and in March of 2020, Macmillan acknowledged the impacts of COVID-19 and returned to its original ebook lending terms. Organizations in the UK also have petitions in place calling the government to investigate the academic ebook publishing industry.
Ebooks have been a key component in closing the gap between literature and readers. Libraries have a number of ways they go about supporting their communities. Limiting library access to ebook titles means limiting access to library patrons and readers.