E-Book sellers screw over libraries

Arts and CultureBookLibrariesEssex (Middlesex, Connecticut)Amazon.com Inc.

An e-book you can get on Amazon for $17.99 could cost your local library a stunning $105 – if the publisher is willing to sell to libraries at all.

And that's just one twisted tendril in the weird financial and technological rat's nest Connecticut libraries are caught up in as they try to find a way into a brave new e-book world.

"Right now we're in an extremely challenging time," says Jill Dugas Hughes, executive director of the Connecticut Library Consortium.

That may be an understatement.

The number of e-book readers is exploding and library patrons are demanding more e-book access. But at least two major publishers won't sell to libraries, fearing potential customers won't buy e-books if they can just get them at the library.

Even if a library can afford to shell out big bucks for an e-book, it may be restricted from loaning it out more than 26 times. And Connecticut's cutting-edge system, allowing any library-card holder to borrow and return books anywhere in the state, is being e-screwed by publishers' e-book licensing restrictions.

At a time when their budgets are being emasculated, libraries are having to pay out $9,000-$10,000 a year for software platforms to allow their patrons to borrow e-books. Except those platforms could be out of date in a year, says Richard Conroy. He's executive director of the Essex Library Association and president of Libraries Online Inc., a cooperative of 25 public libraries in south-central Connecticut attempting to band together to find e-solutions.

Things have gotten so bad that Conroy's group is attempting to organize a boycott against a publisher that's dramatically raised e-book prices.

Meanwhile, the feds and states like Connecticut are suing Apple and several e-book publishers for allegedly trying to rig prices. The Connecticut attorney general's office has been asked to investigate whether some publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, are acting illegally by refusing to sell books to libraries.

Assistant Attorney General Gary Becker says he's still conducting an "informal inquiry… to see if there's a legal problem that needs to be remedied."

No one really knows where all this is heading, but they know it's moving somewhere in a hurry.

"The impact on libraries will only grow as more people want to read more books on e-readers," says Kendall Wiggin, Connecticut state librarian for the past 14 years.

A February survey by the Pew Research Center found that 21 percent of American adults said they'd read an e-book in the past year. A December 2011 survey found just 17 percent of adults said they'd read an e-book in the previous 12 months.

"In my personal opinion," says Conroy, "within five years probably 80 percent of us will have some sort of [e-book reading] device."

The traditional book-reading public still dwarfs the e-book nation. That December 2011 survey found 72 percent of American adults had read a printed book in the previous year, which means libraries can't launch themselves into the e-book future at the expense of their traditional book-reading majority of patrons.

"Publishers would like to see everybody reading e-books," Wiggin says, explaining that e-book production costs are very low compared to printed volumes, and the e-profit margin is sweet.

Publishers and authors claim that selling e-books cheaply to libraries cuts into the potential customer sales that keep them in the book business. Librarians are afraid they're going to get screwed right out of their traditional role of lending books to readers.

Back on Feb. 29th, Random House was charging libraries $35 for the e-book version of Robert K. Massie's popular biography Catherine the Great. The next day, the price of that electronic version jumped to $105.

"That was the last straw for us," says Conroy, whose consortium is calling on other Connecticut libraries to join a moratorium on buying e-books from Random House.

Random House executives claim the $105 price for that book is fair, in part because they're not limiting the number of times libraries can lend out the e-book.

Conroy says that other publishers are restricting the number of times a library can lend out an e-book. HarperCollins is putting the limit at 26 loans for an e-book they're willing to sell to libraries for $35.

According to Conroy, that 26-loan limit may be acceptable. He says a printed hardcover edition of a popular novel "would be pretty much worn out" after it had been loaned out by a library that often.

So paying $35 for that e-book might be considered a reasonable library investment, Conroy acknowledges. "But if you're paying $105 [per e-book], it's going to have a severe impact."

Wiggin says another big potential worry is that some books in the future will only be published as e-books, creating a new gap between people who can afford e-readers and those who can't.

"Some people will be disenfranchised," he warns. "I see a greater and greater divide." And that's coming in a state where the gap between wealthy towns (where libraries have all the resources they need) and poor cities (where libraries may be starved for support) is already way too vast.

"I'm hoping there will be a resolution in the not-too-distant future," Wiggin adds. "Right now, it's still a very volatile situation."

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