The rise of the ebook at public libraries has fueled a spat with publishers over costs and limits on the number of times a title can be checked out, keeping major catalogs out of reach for patrons in Glendale and Pasadena.
Last year, HarperCollins imposed a rule for its titles that limit the number of times they can be checked out to 26. After that, the books “expire” and libraries must re-purchase the title to keep them in circulation.
Some librarians disputed the circulation limit as too low, prompting some — including Glendale and Pasadena — to forsake HarperCollins altogether because of the cost implications.
“We as a system have decided not to buy HarperCollins at this point because of that [circulation] limitation,” Glendale Public Library Director Cindy Cleary said.
For example, Catherine Hany, communications director for the Pasadena Public Library, said in an email that her system still circulates books published between the 1960s and 1990s. Some have endured more than 100 checkouts, but remain “in circulating condition and relevant to our collection,” she said.
“We have kept them for as long as we have because they are the first in a fiction series or the early novels of continually popular writers,” Hany said.
And in an age of tight budgets, being forced to re-buy titles at a faster clip — especially as the popularity of e-books grows — could have significant impacts to library resources, officials said.
But publishers argue that, as a business, they depend on repurchasing — hence the need to impose a cap on electronic copies that theoretically would never experience wear and tear.
And since HarperCollins imposed the limit, said Vice President of Sales Josh Marwell, many librarians have come around.
He noted that HarperCollins now works with three times as many libraries as it did in 2011.
“We think it's certainly become more accepted by librarians,” Marwell said.
In April alone, 18 libraries purchased e-books from the publisher for the first time, he added.
“We're sticking with the model,” Marwell said. “We think that this is a model that is working better and better every day.”
In Burbank, libraries director Sharon Cohen said her department has decided to purchase HarperCollins e-books despite a circulation limit she thinks is too low.
She said the library recently discarded its two original copies of “The Woman's Murder Club” after they had seen 86 and 88 check-outs, respectively — far more than the 26 imposed by HarperCollins.
Still, reader demand currently drives decisions in Burbank.
“HarperCollins has a lot of major authors,” Cohen said. “If it's an author we really need, we will go ahead and get it.”
Despite the decision by HarperCollins to stand by its pricing model, other publishers have changed their tune in terms of how they do business with libraries.
Penguin Group USA announced in February 2011 that it would quit offering electronic and audio books through OverDrive, the digital reading platform currently used by Glendale, Pasadena and Los Angeles County libraries.
Random House charged library vendors the routine cost for a bound book until last March, when the publisher increased the cost of its e-books.
Burbank may be more willing to deal with the higher prices and circulation restrictions, but Cohen said she and her staff have more involved discussions over which titles to add.
“I think our public expects us to have authors they want to read,” she said.
The same sentiment was shared by Susan Broman, the adult services coordinator for the Los Angeles County library system, who noted that Simon & Shuster and Macmillan — publishers of popular titles such as the “Steve Jobs” biography and “Running with Scissors” —currently do not sell e-books to libraries.
“We feel that we're going to purchase the books that our customers want if they're available to purchase,” she said.