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Is There Hope on the Horizon for Unsustainable E-book Prices?

by on September 11, 2015

In a thestar.com article dated June 18, 2015, Vickery Bowles of Toronto Public Library lamented that the Big Five Publishers charge libraries up to $135 per e-book, sometimes five times the cost consumers pay. These publishers supply nearly half of all library books, according to the story. Purchasing multiple copies of high interest titles has put tremendous strain on some library’s budgets.

Anne Womack, Youth Services Collection Development Librarian in Arlington, VA, used Diary of a Wimpy Kid series as an example to describe her dilemma. “From our . . . vendor, we are given the purchase price of $13.95 for one e-copy of the book. If our library patrons go on Amazon they can buy it for $7, half the price. Our customers end up getting frustrated with long wait lists and not enough copies to satisfy the demand because they cannot understand why we’re not buying more copies.”

Womack further points out that in the teen e-book market,a title like “Jodi Picoult’s . . . Off the Page, would cost libraries $59.97 for one e-book. The library might be able to afford 1-2 copies at that price, but that would not meet the demand. Some publishers sell e-books to libraries for 12 months, or maybe for a specific number of check-outs. Then the library has to purchase the title again. It becomes quite a headache for staff!”

A collection development professional in the neighboring DC Public Library shared that concern. While the limited checkouts and renewal license fee structures offered can save libraries money in the short-term, collection specialists must be diligent about e-book collection management efforts to keep up renewals and with demand. Still, she finds the strain necessary since the busiest “branch” of the Library is now the online Virtual Branch where customers are borrowing “all things digital” including e-books.

Hope may be on the horizon for libraries in the e-book market according to Matt Enis in a July 28 article, entitled: “E-book Vendors Anticipate Big Five Licensing Terms Becoming more Flexible.” He notes that revenue growth from e-books to the Big Five Publishers from individual consumers is far lower than the doubling sales they saw from 2010 to 2011 and 2011-2012. The slowing e-book sales growth to consumers suddenly makes the library market an attractive partner again. E-book vendors are expecting the Big Five Publishers to experiment with new fee structures and pricing that can lessen the strain on library budgets in the near future.

This good news can’t come too soon for Vickery Bowles of Toronto Public Library and collections specialists across the United States. Anne Womack crystalized this sentiment: “We would love for the Big 5 publishers to recognize libraries as partners, as a means to get their books into the hands of hundreds of readers who may very well purchase more of the same book/author in the future.” Should the forecast for more favorable pricing structures bear fruit, hope is indeed on the horizon to combat “unsustainable” e-book prices to libraries.

Ennis, Matt. “Ebook Vendors Anticipate Big Five Licensing Terms Becoming More Flexible,” Library Journal Online. July 23, 2015.

Lou, Ethan. “High Ebook prices ‘unsustainable,’ says city’s top librarian,” thestar.com. June 18, 2015.


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