Library Wait Times For E-Books, E-Audiobooks Are About To Get Longer

Aug 20, 2019

Libraries are pushing back against new e-book and e-audiobook policies by some of the biggest publishers. Companies like Macmillan and Simon & Schuster are adjusting how they sell to or allow libraries to use their content, and libraries say the new rules are bad news for patrons.

"It does mean that their wait times will be longer and that their ability to have access to other material may start to be impacted if the cost continues to increase," says Paula Brehm-Heeger, the director of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The library and others around the region are posting messages to users warning of impending changes.

The new usage rules vary by publisher but include eliminating perpetual access - meaning libraries may have to repurchase digital materials on an annual or biannual basis, or limiting the number of copies a library can purchase.

The American Library Association, which has denounced the changes, calls Macmillan's new structure the most restrictive. The publisher announced in July it will limit each library system to one e-book upon publication and embargo additional sales for eight weeks. Macmillan is lowering the cost of the first copy from $60 to $30 and making it perpetual access.

"It seems that given a choice between a purchase of an e-book for $12.99 or a frictionless lend for free, the American e-book reader is starting to lean heavily toward free," Macmillan says in the release announcing the changes.

Simon & Schuster last month raised e-book prices and switched to a two-year metered model. Hachette Book Group dropped its perpetual licenses in July, and Penguin Random House switched to a metered model last year.

Brehm-Heeger worries about what the new cost structures will do to the library's budget.

"The cost of e-books is so much more expensive than regular books, so that budget tends to continue to have to grow because we love to see the demand, but the cost is quite different than the print cost," she says.

According to figures provided by the Cincinnati/Hamilton County library, e-books and e-audiobooks account for 26% of the library's materials budget. (The materials budget includes all print and audio-visual materials, along with magazines, newspapers and databases.)

Annual digital checkouts have jumped nearly 500% in four years from just over 449,000 in 2012 to more than 2,575,000 in 2018.

"When we're spending more money to repurchase items that are still having demand ... we have limited resources so we may not be able to buy other things if we decide to continue to buy e-books at the rate that the demand may indicate," explains Brehm-Heeger.

Smaller library systems say the changes will be "a real blow" for them. Tech Center Manager Amanda Toth with The Lane Libraries in Butler County points out smaller systems aren't financially capable of maintaining their own e-libraries, so in Ohio at least, they partner with the Ohio Digital Library.

"With Macmillan's new rules, we're going to only be able to purchase one copy for the entire Ohio Digital Library," she points out. "So every single library has to share that one copy."

That's more than 170 library systems across the state - including Midpointe, Clermont County, Mason and more.

"A lot of our patrons are going to get really discouraged," she says, especially homebound patrons who rely heavily on digital services.

"It's going to be months if not even close to a year before we can get (some books). There's also the thought that we're going to have so many complaints that there's a chance we're going to have to spend so much of our e-book budget just purchasing a bunch of copies of particular books all at once."

Macmillan CEO John Sargent says 45% of his company's e-book reads in the U.S. come from free library borrows. "And that number is still growing rapidly," he writes in a statement to authors that publish with the imprint.

"The average revenue we get from those library reads (after the wholesaler share) is well under two dollars and dropping, a small fraction of the revenue we share with you on a retail read."

Macmillan's new pricing structure begins Nov. 1.