Last updated: March 18. 2014 8:12AM - 2983 Views
By Ben Loftis Contributing Columnist

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A couple of weeks ago, the library began making e-book services available to the patrons of UCCL. To make this possible, the library joined the Overdrive Jasmine Digital Consortium of libraries, a collection of 17 county libraries in South Carolina working together to provide an e-book collection. Similar to the SCLENDS catalog of print books, members of each county library have access to each book in the Jasmine collection.

By combining resources, the consortium is able to make more items available. However, it also means there are more patrons who have access to the same books, which can sometimes limit a title’s availability. (There are still plenty of titles available — as I type this, the catalog shows over 8,700 items that are not checked out and are available for download).

While it may seem odd that an e-book can be unavailable, the explanation is that most publishers sell to libraries under a one-copy, one-user model. In other words, though technology may seem to indicate other possibilities, publishers still seek to maintain traditional sales models.

The sales models used by publishers has frustrated librarians since libraries began offering e-books. The majority of publishing companies are willing to work pretty well with libraries. These companies are mostly smaller in size and are more interested in getting their authors’ works available to generate sales. They are certainly seeking a profit, but their small-to-midsize stature means they need exposure to generate income.

The larger publishers (known as the Big Six before several mergers took place) do not act the same way, largely because they already have the major offers and all the exposure they need. Until recently, several of these publishers would not even sell e-books to libraries — the library gaining access to their titles at all has been a major breakthrough that has only come about in recent months.

Still, these publishing houses place some major restrictions on libraries, typically in one of two ways. One way is simply by charging libraries more for titles. A quick comparison between what Amazon charges an individual and what it costs a library to purchase a title through an e-book distributor is quite revealing. A couple of examples — the Amazon list price for the recently popular book “Fifty Shades of Grey” is $4.99. The cost for the same title for a library is $47.95, an increase of nearly 1,000 percent. An even more extreme example is John Grisham’s latest novel “Sycamore Row.” Amazon sales the book to individuals for $6.49, the cost for libraries is $85.

One way publishers are able to charge such varying costs is the technology available. With a print copy, publishers often do not know who is purchasing the book, and certainly have no idea what happens with the book after it is purchased. E-books are much easier to track, particularly with Digital Right Management software (which enables Overdrive to remove books from devices once the lending period has ended).

The second method publishers use is known as metered access. Essentially, this means that libraries are renting the item either for specified period of time or number of circulations, a model first used by publishing house Harper Collins. Examples of this include Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Invention of Wings” which is metered for 12 months and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” which is metered for 26 checkouts.

The cost for these titles is much more reasonable, typically around $15. However, the limit time access is frustrating — after the metered period or the number of checkouts is reached, libraries must either pay to renew the license or lose access to the title. The publishers justification for this practice is that a print title that has circulated 26 times is likely to be worn to the point that it must be discarded and replaced, though many library editions of print books last much longer.

The major reason given that most publishers pursue these practices is called “friction.” The ultimate job of the publisher is to make money (after all, it is a business) and publishers fear that only selling one copy of an e-book circulated by a library will cost them the business of many other customers who can check the book out for free. The concept of friction develops from the notion that most library patrons who check out e-books will do so from home. Publishers believe that their profits are not as jeopardized with print books because a patron will still have to endure the burden of traveling to the library, waiting in line to check the book out, and travel back home. Whether or not that is truly a cumbersome practice is debatable, though publishers believe it may discourage or limit some potential customers.

The process of downloading an e-book for free through a library or purchasing a book directly from a vendor is extremely similar, and publishers fear that many readers will download the free copy instead of paying to purchase the book. Publishers desire that extra effort to make the trip to the library (friction) to make it more desirable for patrons to purchase the e-book, thus increasing the profits of the publisher.

Despite these restrictions, the library is still excited to offer e-books and we anticipate the service only growing. While prices or metered access may make it more costly to provide access to titles, we will still strive to make available as many quality titles as possible.

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