Western Pa. libraries struggle with changing e-book rules
It’s never been easier to borrow an e-book from the library, but it’s getting harder for libraries to pay to make those books available.
When a library buys a physical book, it often does so at a discount. Buying e-books, which can be read on digital devices like the Kindle or iPhone, costs a lot more, said Cesare Muccari, executive director of the Westmoreland Library Network.
An e-book that costs consumers around $15 often costs a library $65, Muccari said.
The e-books that publishers sell to libraries expire, typically after two years or a set number of checkouts, which means libraries must routinely replace them at marked-up prices.
“Where in the world does a library have that kind of money?” Muccari asked.
Under the new policy, libraries can only buy one digital copy of new releases. Once the book is eight weeks old, libraries can buy additional copies.
“Even just in this past year, there’s been a lot of changes from the big five publishers, and it’s upsetting for those of us who work in libraries,” said Hilary Lewis, coordinator of e-resources at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
The price mark-ups and expiring books have been frustrating, but the Macmillan policy is worse because it restricts libraries’ access to books, she said.
Macmillan Chief Executive John Sargent told the Wall Street Journal that library lending was “cannibalizing” the publisher’s digital sales.
The American Library Association denounced Macmillan’s decision.
“Macmillan Publishers’ new model for library e-book lending will make it difficult for libraries to fulfill our central mission: ensuring access to information for all,” association President Wanda Brown said in a statement. “Limiting access to new titles for libraries means limiting access for patrons most dependent on libraries.”
Muccari, who leads the consortium of 23 public libraries in the county, said the e-book world has been evolving rapidly for the past few years. In the first half of the decade, most major publishers didn’t sell e-books to libraries at all. Now they all do, but the rules change constantly.
Until last year, e-books purchased from “big five” publishers Hachette and Penguin Random House were permanent. Now both publishers limit use to two years.
Simon & Schuster also has a two-year model, while HarperCollins limits e-books to 26 loans before expiration.
“We’re trying to come to grips with it. It’s a challenge,” Muccari said. “At the same time that this is happening, our circulation is increasing like crazy.”
The Westmoreland network lent 116,460 e-books and digital audio books last year, representing about 11% of its total circulation. In July, it set a new monthly record with about 12,000 digital check-outs.
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh oversees digital lending for all of Allegheny County’s public libraries. Last year, it checked out about 1.6 million e-books and digital audio books, a 20% increase over 2017.
Most libraries build their e-book collections through OverDrive, a global e-book distribution company. Readers can find books from their local library’s collection on OverDrive’s website or through the company’s app, called Libby.
Lewis said the Carnegie Library will continue to buy the e-books that are most popular with readers, despite the changing industry.
“We’re going to just see how it goes,” she said. We’ve been watching the national front on this. … We are going to stay the course right now, for what we are purchasing and the decisions we are making.”
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter .