Why Soaring E-Book Checkouts Are Worrying Libraries

Dec 30, 2020

E-books, as they say, are having a moment. Sales were up 16.5% for the first 10 months of 2020, according to the Association of American Publishers, and several months into the pandemic, e-book checkouts from libraries shot up more than 50%.

Schools are also relying heavily on e-books during remote and hybrid education. Digital reading platform OverDrive reports an 80% increase worldwide in school e-book and audiobook usage.

The Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library saw dramatic increases in e-book and e-audiobook usage over the past eight years, but Holbrook Sample, chief technology and logistics officer, says usage spiked during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Year-over-year in November, for e-books themselves, we were up 23% and digital audiobooks were (a) 10-12% increase year-over-year," says Sample. "We've definitely seen a nice rise in usage of our digital collection."

The Kenton County Public Library is seeing a similar boom.

"We've seen about a 16% increase over the same time period in the previous year," reports Nicole Frilling, digital branch librarian.

The Cincinnati & Hamilton County library system and the Kenton County Public Library are responsible for stocking their own digital collections. That means they aren't part of the Ohio Digital Library and Kentucky Libraries Unbound, (and Evergreen Indiana and the Indiana Digital Download Center, serving Indiana libraries in Cincinnati Public Radio's listening area) which pool resources to make digital materials available.

Those statewide consortiums are also seeing huge spikes.

The Problem

At the Ohio Digital Library - one of the largest consortiums in the nation - State Librarian Wendy Knapp reports 1 million more checkouts than last year, and 2.9 million holds placed during the first 11 months of 2020, compared to 1.5 million for all of 2019.

Katie Justice is the digital services librarian for Boone County Public Library and the coordinator of Kentucky Libraries Unbound, which functions on a fiscal year calendar. "The fiscal year that ended in July, Kentucky Libraries Unbound had (a little more than) 2.4 million circulations, and so far this fiscal year, 2020-2021, we're at 1.5 million already, so we've seen a pretty dramatic increase."

In 2019, publishers announced plans to change e-book access: 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. Libraries pushed back, calling on publishers to forgo those changes and warning patrons about potentially long "lines" for virtual checkouts.

Then the pandemic hit and some publishers relaxed e-book pricing and terms. Macmillan Publishing in particular canceled the embargo it had put in place in November 2019.

However, Bill Rosenblatt, president of consulting firm GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies, tells Marketplace Morning Report that "publishers could change their library pricing again after the pandemic.

'The cold reality is that libraries have to start thinking about this in business terms if they're going to come to some sort of mutual accommodation with publishers,' " he said.

"It's hard to anticipate how the publishers will respond to the end of the pandemic," Sample says. "I hope they take a look again at the numbers... we're a huge customer, the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library spends millions of dollars on digital materials so we're an excellent customer."

Sample says the library is bracing for "hard times" as the state budgeting process begins and publisher pricing schemes may change in the new year.

"At some point the costs need to stabilize because libraries aren't going to be able to keep up with these increases that we've had over the past few years," Frilling in Kenton County adds. "It seems like every year the prices increase and we have to try to fill our holds and keep our patrons happy. We're hoping that it's pretty much stabilized... fingers crossed."

That may or may not be the case.

Ohio's State Librarian, Wendy Knapp, says libraries are watching to see what happens this spring.

"Publishers have done a great job of coming around, partnering with us, responding, providing extra allowances during the pandemic and a lot of those go through March 31, so that's wonderful news for libraries. But, of course, as librarians, we're all thinking 'What happens on April 1?' and 'What can our budgets absorb going forward?' "

The Amazon Problem

In talking with local libraries, there was another clear, overarching concern: Amazon.

"When a library buys an e-book it costs between $30 and $50," Knapp explains. "So, when you're buying your Amazon e-book for $6.99 and wondering why your library can't afford it, and then your library is only going to have it for two years and then they're going to have to buy it again if it's still popular... I try very hard to keep that perspective in people's minds."

Knapp says libraries want to talk with publishers about reestablishing the e-book "ecosystem coming out of the pandemic."

Another concern is books that are only published on - or are exclusive to - Amazon, making them unavailable to libraries.

"They have exclusive Audible contracts so we can't buy the audiobooks or they have exclusive Kindle contracts and the e-books don't become available for purchase at all because Amazon won't play with any of the library-available systems (like Overdrive)," Justice says.

She worries that's confusing to patrons who simply want a particular book and don't understand why if a book is available on Amazon it then isn't available everywhere, like the library. Plus, a library may be able to get a physical copy of a book, but not a digital one.

"That's already kind of confusing, especially when they can go to Amazon and buy it right away. They're like, 'I can get it for my Kindle, why can't you get it for my Kindle so I don't have to buy it?' And in our case it's because it's not available to us, and it won't be."

What Do Authors Think?

Authors are annoyed with Amazon as well. The Association of American Publishers, Authors Guild and American Booksellers Association wrote a joint letter in August lamenting Amazon's control over the market and industry.

"As to the publishing industry," the groups wrote, "we believe that Amazon acts anti-competitively in multiple ways, dictating the economic terms of its relationships with suppliers so that publishers, their authors and the booksellers who sell on Amazon pay more each year for Amazon's distribution and advertising services but receive less each year in return."

The Authors Guild, the world's largest organization for writers, however, isn't firmly siding with libraries when it comes to pricing for digital materials. Last year, the group released a pair of statements saying its members love libraries, but also have to look out for their own financial futures.

"The central question it seems that we all should be asking is how can we ensure that authors can afford to keep writing? Compared to the author-income crisis at hand, we did not think that having to wait eight weeks for a library e-book was an unreasonable compromise, especially when print copies are available for borrowing. But we hear those who disagree, and understand that there are people who might need immediate e-book access and that windowing might create a backlog in the queues.

"The Guild will continue to support efforts that bring writers, publishers, and libraries together to explore new business models for library lending. It is still a relatively young market, and we saw Macmillan's new model as another experiment that will provide more feedback on what works. No one model is perfect, and the latest reconfigurations will need to be tweaked over time as markets continue to evolve."