The e-book war in public libraries

| May 10, 2012

A recently published article in on Mind/Shift clearly articulates the e-book lending war between libraries and publishers–namely, that publishers feel threatened by the ease with which patrons can check out e-books, and are trying to encumber public libraries with book lending restrictions, making it expensive, more difficult, or in some cases simply impossible to lend e-books.  Some publishers require libraries to repurchase books after 26 check-outs, the length of time they’ve decided a physical book would wear out (surely every library in the US has books sitting on the shelves that have been checked out more than 26 times!); some publishers institute an embargo period on new e-books, while others have attempted to add a step to the lending process, so that accessing the book is slightly harder. The underlying theory is, as I understand it, that libraries are not in competition with publishers because they restrict access.  A physical book imposes physical limitations: it can only be checked out once at a time, a copy wears out, one has to get it from the library in person and etc. Therefore, anyone who can afford the book will simply buy it. Those who can’t use the library.

However, publishers don’t seem to see that other factors are at play.  There are numerous studies showing that giving some books away for free actually increases book sales.  (Here is one about Kindle lending library.) (Here is one by BYU showing that publishers giving away books increases sales.) Neither of these reports gets at the underlying reasons for why offering free books increases sales, aside from suggesting that increasing visibility increases sales. Personally, I think there are reasons people want to own a book (rather than borrow a book) which extend beyond the issue of instant access.  I often check out books in libraries and then once I determine the book to be “important” to my research or “meaningful” to my literary life (I have a whole bookshelf at home of “meaningful” novels) I go out and buy the book.  Owning a book means you can return to it; it means you can add your own notes to it (see earlier post on what not to do to a library book). An owned book takes on a tender quality–you add your own thoughts to the book’s thoughts in the margins, inscribe its title page with the date you bought it, add a bookplate, etc. But most importantly, libraries provide access to books which would otherwise not be bought, either because they are too expensive for people to buy, too rare for most to own, or too dangerous to be brought home (in the case of a gay teen reading gay fiction, for instance), among many other reasons. If e-books are the future, it’s fairly crucial that libraries and publishers find common ground on this issue.

The ALA is doing a study right now asking how people read e-books in libraries, which hopefully will shed better light on the topic.