Before moving to Maryland last week, Sarah Adler used library cards from her Washington, DC, her homeland, and neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland to read books online. The Libby app, a slick and easy-to-use service from the company OverDrive, gave her access to millions of titles. When she moved, she picked up another card and access to another library’s e-collection, as well as a larger consortium to which the library belongs. She reads almost all of her books on her phone, through the app, and reads a few pages between working on her novels and caring for her 2-year-old. Now that her husband is also home, she has read more books during the pandemic, mainly historical romance and literature. In 2020, she estimates, she will have read 150 books.
Adler “seldom buys,” she says, “what makes me feel bad. As someone who hopes to be published one day, I feel bad for not giving money to authors.”
Borrowers like Adler drive publishers crazy. After the pandemic closed many brick-and-mortar libraries this spring, ebook checkouts are up 52 percent from the same period last year, according to OverDrive, which partners with 50,000 libraries worldwide. Hoopla, another service that connects libraries to publishers, says 439 library systems in the US and Canada have joined since March, increasing membership by 20 percent.
Some public libraries, new to digital collections, enjoy exposing their readers to a new kind of reading. The library in Archer City, Texas, which has a population of 9,000, received a grant this summer to join OverDrive. The new ebook collection “has been really great,” said library director Gretchen Abernathy-Kuck. “So much of the past few months have been stressful and negative.” The ebooks are “something positive. It was something new.”
More expensive ebooks
But the rising popularity of library ebooks has also led to long-standing tensions between publishers, who fear digital borrowing will hurt their sales, and public librarians, who seek to serve their communities during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. generation occurs. Since 2011, the industry’s five major publishers — Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan — have limited library lending of ebooks, either by length of time — say, two years — or number of checkouts — most often, 26 or 52 times. Readers can browse digital library books from the comfort of their home, download them, sign up for waiting lists, and return them, and the books are automatically removed 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 study — compared to the $15 a person could pay to buy the same ebook online. Rather than owning a copy of an ebook forever, librarians must decide whether to renew at the end of the license term.
Rising demand for digital assets has prompted some librarians to shift their purchases, even as they fear shrinking budgets amid the economic downturn. A recent survey of 400 librarians in the US and Canada found that since the start of the pandemic, a third are spending less on physical books, audiobooks and DVDs, and more on digital versions. At twenty-nine percent, the budget is frozen or reduced.
But the publishers’ licensing terms make it “very difficult for libraries to afford ebooks,” said Michelle Jeske, director of the Denver Public Library and president of the Public Library Association. “The pricing models don’t work well for libraries.” Between January and July, Denver’s system downloads 212,000 more books than in the same period last year, an increase of 17 percent.
Last year, Macmillan took the extra step, limiting each library system to just a single digital copy of a new title — at half the usual price — until it was on the market for two months. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, said he was concerned there was too little friction in e-book lending at the library. “To borrow a book in [the pre-digital days] transport for days, return the book and pay those pesky fines if you forgot to get them back on time,” he wrote in a letter announcing the policy. “In today’s digital world, there is no such friction in the market.” Many librarians, who argue that the Macmillan policies are harming large urban systems that are already struggling to keep up with the demand for new and notable books, have organized to boycott the publisher.
But in mid-March, days after libraries across the country began closing, Macmillan dropped the policy. “There are times in life when differences have to be brushed aside,” Sargent wrote in a memo. A spokesman for Macmillan declined to comment.
Librarians argue that digital lending promotes long-term sales by introducing readers to authors whose books they might not have bought otherwise. Research by the OverDrive-funded organization Panorama Project suggests that library book clubs and associated marketing either encourage or do not influence sales of the same book title. For example, this year, ebook sales were up 7.6 percent through June, according to the NPD Group. The Panorama Project is doing more in-depth research on this.
“I think one of the things we’ll see in this year’s autopsy is that the importance of libraries will become apparent,” said Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, the Panorama Project’s project leader. “Any publisher coming out of 2020 who doesn’t miss their budget too much — they owe that to libraries” (also, he says, Amazon).
Some publishers have made changes during the pandemic. Penguin Random House just extended a program until the end of the year that allows libraries to license ebooks and audiobooks for a year at half the price they normally pay. That makes it easier for a library to, for example, load up licenses for a popular bestseller and then let them go when customers no longer demand so many copies. (A Random House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.) Many publishers have also created one-off programs related to pandemic or social justice, opening up titles to new curious readers. Some smaller publishers still allow libraries to license ebooks perpetually. Amazon’s publishing house does not sell digital copies of its books to public libraries.
But the tension between libraries and publishers remains. Libraries want more flexibility and make sure they keep their collections for a long time, says Michael Blackwell, director of St. Mary’s County Library in Maryland and program director of the advocacy group Readers First. “May or may not [the pandemic] going to convince the publishers to work better with us, I don’t know,” he says. “Honestly, I’m skeptical.”
At the same time, Jeske and others are concerned about moving too much of their collections online, as some residents don’t have access to ebook readers, laptops, or Wi-Fi. Librarians in Denver have taken their laptops and free Wi-Fi program outside, where they hope ventilation and distance will keep everyone safe from the virus. They sweep up borrowed laptops between uses.
The debate has attracted attention in Washington. The House Antitrust Subcommittee last year launched an investigation into competition in the digital marketplace, and the subcommittee chair, Representative David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) met with library advocates. “The Whole Matter of This Negotiation” [between libraries and publishers] of the past decade comes from a place where libraries in the digital age have almost no rights,” said Alan Inouye, senior director of public policy and government relations at the American Library Association. “In the longer term, there has to be a change in the environment or in the game. That means laws or regulations.”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.