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Why Some Books Aren’t Available at Your Local Library

“Most people think that a digital copy of a library book would be far cheaper, because it's made of vapor, right?” said Virginia Phelps, collection manager for Chesterfield County’s ten libraries. “It's on the internet, how can it cost more than a physical book you have to print?” (Photo: Image by Myriams-Fotos for Pixabay)

One of the line items in Chesterfield County’s proposed budget, which the Board of Supervisors is set to vote on April 7, is a request for more than $1 million to purchase print and electronic books for county libraries. But one of these formats costs more than the other and it’s due to the demands of publishers -- many of whom won’t sell to libraries at all. 

“Most people think that [a] digital copy of a library book would be far cheaper, because it's made of vapor, right?” said Virginia Phelps, collection manager for Chesterfield County’s ten libraries. “It's on the internet, how can it cost more than a physical book you have to print?”

Phelps said that digital copies--or e-books--cost almost two and a half times more than print.

“It costs us about a little more than $15, to buy a print copy of a book. But it costs us $40 to buy it as an e-book,” said Phelps.

Instead of purchasing books outright, which is how print books are bought, e-books are licensed from a publisher.

Like something out of a Franz Kafka novel, the hurdles libraries have to jump over to obtain e-books are high and are on a circular and endless track.

“There are very few vendors who work with libraries,” Phelps said. One of those is called Overdrive. “What we need from Overdrive is that ability to digitally check that e-book in and out. That's the functionality that they provide.”

Unlike physical books, e-books are ‘shared’ across the county. That means only a few digital copies for the entire system. 

“The publisher knows without a doubt that they're working with a library,” Phelps said. “They see [us] as a revenue loss. Because they aren't getting the 20 customers that I'm circulating it to--they're not selling 20 copies of the book.”

In 2017, libraries nationwide spent 27% of their collection budgets on electronic materials, such as e-books, databases and other digital content. Five years earlier, that number was almost 10% less. It’s still smaller than the over 54% spent for print books,  according to data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services,which handles federal funding for public libraries.

Besides being costly, the ability to check e-books in and out is marred by publishers that put tight restrictions on the purchases, such as putting a time lock on digital copies that expire after a certain period of time or a certain number of loans. 

When that happens, Phelps said they have to repurchase the book again. Altogether, those systems create a bottleneck that Phelps says results in more than 27,000 holds on digital books. 

“We can't just buy one copy and distribute it to as many people as we want,” Phelps said. “That’s simultaneous use. In order to get simultaneous use the premium goes up--way more than $40. They charge us several hundred dollars to do that.”

And that option isn’t even available for bestsellers, which she says “of course are our highest demand books.”

Publishers Who Won’t Sell To Libraries

Then there are some publishers who won’t sell to libraries at all, like Amazon Publishing, which is now the fifth largest publisher in the country, according to the American Library Association

Back in 2019, the ALA presented a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Competition in Digital Markets, saying in part that marketplace bans like Amazon’s are some of the worst obstacles for libraries. 

“The eBook titles from Amazon Publishing are not available to libraries for lending at any price or any terms. By contrast, consumers may purchase all of these titles directly from Amazon. This is a particularly pernicious new form of the digital divide; the Amazon Publishing books are available only to people who can afford to buy them, without the library alternative previously available to generations of Americans,” reads the letter.

The limit takes the more than 10,000 e-books and tens of thousands of audiobooks Amazon publishes out of libraries, according to the Washington Post

That means popular  e-books by writers such as Mindy Kaling, Dean Koontz or Trevor Noah put out by Amazon Publishing aren’t available through libraries, and have to be purchased. While the company does sell some physical books and audiobook CDs to libraries, they’re higher priced than e-books, which further limits how many books a library can have available.

In December, Amazon announced the company is in negotiations to sell e-books to a small nonprofit called the Digital Public Library of America, which makes tech for other libraries. But those negotiations don’t include Audible audiobooks or the company’s self-published books. 

That may not lead to more e-books in Chesterfield, either. Many libraries are committed to Overdrive already.

“There isn't anything that we can do. If the publisher does not make it available, then there isn't anything that we can do about it,” Phelps said. “We cannot offer it to our customers, which is unfortunate that the publishers are working that way.”

Phelps says even with more than 50,000 e-books in their collection, it’s hard to explain to borrowers why some aren’t available.


Further reading:

Washington Post article“Want to borrow that e-book from the library? Sorry, Amazon won’t let you,” by Geoffrey Fowler.

Washington Post article “E-books at libraries are a huge hit, leading to long waits, reader hacks and worried publishers,” by Heather Kelly.

Publisher’s Weekly article“OverDrive CEO: Publishers, Librarians Still Searching for Fair e-book Lending Models.”


Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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