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Why you may have to wait longer to check out an e-book from your local library

OverDrive Libby App
Image used with permission by copyright holder

On November 26, the third book in Nora Roberts’ Chronicles of The One, The Rise of Magicks, will be published. But fans who want to download the e-book from their local library could be frustrated by long waits. And it’s not just the romance writer’s books that will be affected. 

Macmillan, which publishes the series, is only allowing library systems around the country to purchase a single e-book of newly published titles for all their branches. Eight weeks after new books launch, libraries will be able to buy more. In the interim, Helen Gutierrez expects a lot of annoyed patrons at Seattle Public Library (SPL), where she’s the collection services manager.

It’s highly anticipated by the readers who have read the first two books in the series,” she told Digital Trends. “To wait for two months to have access to it in the e-book format will be disappointing.” A

In July, Macmillan CEO John Sargent outlined the changes in response to “growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales.” On September 11,  the American Library Association (ALA) started circulating a petition in hopes of pressuring Macmillan to not go through with its plan, which is scheduled to go into effect in November. “To treat libraries as an inferior consumer to the general population, it’s the wrong thing to do,” said Alan Inouye, director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the ALA. “Libraries are generally held as amongst the highest esteemed institutions in the community.” 

“Allowing a library like the Los Angeles Public Library (which serves 18 million people) the same number of initial e-book copies as a rural Vermont library serving 1,200 people smacks of punishment, not support,” librarian Jessamyn West wrote on CNN. She also points out that Sargent’s claim that apps let people check out books in states and countries where they don’t live “betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how public libraries work.” There are a few that let you pay for a library card regardless of where you live, but not many. Digital Trends reached out to Macmillan for comment but did not receive a response. 

Sometimes even authors don’t understand how libraries work. When writer Heather Havrilesky tweeted you should “never tell a writer you can’t wait to get their book at the library,” Twitter responders “Dewey decimated” her, in the words of Library Journal. (She later apologized.) Though library books are free to borrow for the public, they are paid for by the libraries themselves. Because they’re often buying in bulk, library systems get discounts on physical copies, which they then disseminate to their branches. With e-books, it’s different. 

Publishers often provide what e-book and audiobook distributor OverDrive’s director of brand marketing and communication David Burleigh calls “metered access” to their titles for e-books. They might be based on a time limit (say, two years) or on the number of checkouts (say, 52). Then libraries have to purchase the rights again. While you might be able to find the e-book for $14 or $15 on Amazon, libraries have to pay $60. And that’s for a single copy. “The vast majority of the publishers that we work with have basically a one-copy, one-user model,” said Burleigh

Gutierrez says the Seattle Public Library, which is one of the largest circulators of digital materials, loaned out around three million e-books and audiobooks last year and spent about $2.5 million to acquire those rights. “But that added 60,000 titles, about,” she said, because the e-books cost so much more than their physical counterpart. The money doesn’t stretch nearly as far.” 

Nora Roberts and Louise Penny fans might be willing to wait for the authors’ latest — or may just go purchase it on their own, as Macmillan seems to be hoping — but it’s different for non-fiction, said Frank Brasile, a selection services librarian at SPL. “There might be a lot of interest up front, but after two months interest will have waned. That will hurt both readers and authors,” he said. “I think a lot of libraries are going to just be like, ‘You know, we can’t afford this.’” 

OverDrive acts as the intermediary between libraries and publishers, acting as the distributor for 90% of schools and libraries in the U.S. This makes OverDrive’s data pretty valuable, and CEO Steve Potash shared some in a blog post harshly criticizing Macmillan’s move. “For all the Macmillan e-books that libraries acquired for lending, 79% expired and were removed from library catalogs because the two-year term limit occurred first — not because they were checked out 52 times,” according to Potash. OverDrive also created the digital book app Libby and funds the Panorama Project, which provides data to libraries about digital titles.

Seattle Public Library uses numbers to determine which books to buy. “Our selection decisions are, in a great way, data-driven,” said Gutierrez. It can come from sources like people requesting the library procure a certain book or getting on the waitlist before it publishes. An author’s past performance can also be an indicator. But much of the outcry around Macmillan’s decision focuses on what libraries do for authors and books. Librarians are experts at pairing patrons with books. “Why would you walk away from one of the places that is one of your most important sources of discovery?” said Burleigh.

Take Seattle Public Library’s curated lists. In SPL’s OverDrive app, the front page contains weekly-updated collections created by librarians. When I ask Gutierrez if these drive downloads, she laughs and says the selection librarians can’t create them fast enough. For the micro-histories list of e-books and audiobooks that Brasile recently created, within a week all but six of the 432 titles had been checked out. The list included books that are several years old, like Mary Roach’s Stiff and The Grid by Gretchen Bakke. “We have voracious readers who really want to read what’s available,” said Brasile. The OverDrive app has an auto-suggest feature that kicks in when you put something on hold. It recommends similar titles (with varying degrees of success) that are immediately available. 

Obviously someone checking out one of these books from the library doesn’t equal a sale for the author, but it might create a loyal reader. A 2011 Library Journal survey found over 50% of patrons bought books by an author they first found in a library. Earlier this year, Macmillan actually helped fund another Library Journal study that found that 49% of Generation Z readers have bought a book they’ve checked out at a library, and 76% went on to buy the author’s other books; for Millennials the numbers were 60% and 77%, respectively. “Readers are readers, and there’s there’s so much data out there that people who like to read, read both from the library and from retail,” said Burleigh.

When OverDrive and public libraries combined forces to promote a single author, the results were easy to see, said Burleigh. The hypothesis was, how can we show how valuable libraries are to the success of a book?” he said. For OverDrive’s 2018  Big Library Read, over 14,700 branches displayed Jennifer McGaha’s Flat Broke With Two Goats on their sites for two weeks. The first-time author’s Amazon Kindle sales rank went from around 200,000 to 7,833. There were waiting lists for the title, so it was free to check out to anyone who wanted it. 

E-books are often seen as a convenience issue; it’s easier to toss a tablet in a bag on the way to the bus. But for many, “It’s an access issue,” said Brasile. Being able to increase the font or hold something lighter than a heavy, large-print volume is the difference between being able to enjoy a book and not being able to read at all. “If you’re in a nursing home or if you have transportation difficulties — maybe you’re in a rural area — getting to a library on a regular basis like that is not the easiest thing to do,” said Inouye. “So, e-books become more important for you if you’re in that kind of situation.” 

The worry is that if more publishers decide to replicate Macmillan’s waiting period, libraries won’t be able to offer patrons swift access to popular titles. It’s not just e-books, either. Blackstone Publishing imposed a 90-day embargo on new audiobooks thanks to a deal with Amazon’s Audible. In response, the Washington Digital Library Consortium (WDLC) organized a six-month boycott of the publisher’s audiobooks. It’s another way Brasile sees publishers impeding readers’ discovery of important works as well. Joy Harjo is the U.S. Poet Laureate for 2019. Her audiobook is also a Blackstone title. “We’re just not able to provide our patrons with the opportunity to listen to our Poet Laureate read her work,” said Brasile

Carmi Parker is an ILS (Integrated Library System) administrator for the Whatcom County Library System and is one of the facilitators of the WDLC boycott. The consortium is comprised of 45 Washington state libraries that pool their resources to share e-books and audiobooks. Some of the tiny libraries have annual book-buying budgets of just $1,000 and wouldn’t even be able to afford OverDrive’s platform fees, said Parker. “What we’re trying to accomplish is make sure that the small libraries in the state have some access to e-books,” she said. 

The WDLC hopes the boycott will send a message to publishers: “You are assuming when you undercut your service levels that we’re just going to keep paying the bills, and it is not safe to assume that,” said Parker. Other libraries and consortia outside of Washington State have joined the boycott, but Parker knows that even lost library revenue won’t move Blackstone if the Audible deal is more lucrative. 

Amazon owns Audible, and the retail giant hasn’t been willing to share its exclusive content with libraries, either. “They are producing books that we would like to be able to lend,” said Parker. She adds that Amazon could make money with this secondary library market. “For every e-book, there’s going to be more people who want to read it than who will buy it,” she said. Library sales could capture some of those readers. 

Digital Trends reached out to both Blackstone and Audible for this story, but they did not respond. 

As Macmillan’s November change moves closer, the ALA and librarians are hoping to inform the public as to why they’ll have to wait for months to read blockbuster authors. They also hope patrons put pressure on the publisher with the petition. Whether that will have an effect remains to be seen.

It doesn’t really seem like anybody’s going to win in this situation,” said Brasile. “It just seems like there are a lot of casualties.” 

Correction: This story initially misstated what ILS stands for. It stands for Integrated Library System.

Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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