June 11, 2013
Laptop computer with books, isolated on white

The growing popularity of e-readers and tablets poses a unique challenge for libraries. Patrons want ebooks, but while all of the Big Six publishers offer ebook editions to buyers, they have not been keen to jump on the ebook bandwagon when it comes to library lending materials. Libraries have always purchased physical copies for perpetuity, but ebooks come with digital rights management that has put libraries at the mercy of uncooperative publishers.

Various Big Six publishers have cited a number of concerns about libraries lending ebooks. Unlike physical copies, ebooks never wear out. Library patrons can check out ebooks from home and the copy is automatically returned to the library after the due date. This eliminates the inconvenience of visiting the library to return the book, and publishers fear it’s almost as easy for the patron to get the ebook for free as to buy a copy.


Half A Dozen the Same and No Two Alike

Each Big Six publisher has their own policy on selling ebooks to libraries, and none of them even remotely line up. Libraries that want to offer ebooks to their patrons must deal with a mishmash of restrictive policies that don’t apply to physical copies. As bad as the situation is at the moment, before last year it was much worse. Until 2012, only two Big Six publishers sold ebooks to libraries. Let’s look at the current ebook policies of each publisher as of April 2013.

  • Penguin charges the same price for ebooks with no restrictions on the number of checkouts, but copies expire one year after purchase.
  • HarperCollins also charges the same and does not put an expiration date on their ebooks, but has a maximum of 26 checkouts before the library must buy a new copy.
  • Random House ebooks do not have expiration dates or checkout limits, but they charge libraries higher prices for each copy.
  • Simon & Schuster offers only two ebook titles, but has recently started an ebook pilot program with three New York library systems.
  • Macmilan does not sell ebooks to library consortia, K-12 school libraries, or academic libraries. Other libraries only have access to backlist titles with a two year or 52 checkout expiration, whichever comes first.
  • Hachette does not offer new ebook titles to libraries, but does offer a backlist at higher prices.


The Effects of Big Six Ebook Policies on Libraries

According to the American Library Association, the number of library systems offering ebooks has grown from 38.3% in 2007 to 67.2% in 2011.  ( As ebooks become more popular with patrons, libraries are feeling the pinch in their budget. Libraries are spending more money on ebooks and getting less.

The Douglas County Library System in Colorado released a price comparison report listing library and consumer prices for print and ebook editions for the top 15 fiction and top 5 nonfiction titles circulating in their system for the month of January 2013. Out of the fiction titles, 11 were not available to the library as ebooks, and 3 of the 4 available titles had library prices nearly 500% the cost of print copies. The nonfiction list had only a single title available to the library as an ebook, with a cost at 160% of the print version. (

Douglas County Library Director Jamie LaRue told a Forbes reporter in December 2012, “I looked at our inventory and realized that the problem is that as we shift our dollars to ebooks, I am buying fewer items because the prices are so much higher.” (


Libraries Turn to Alternate Ebook Sources

While the Big Six are slowly moving forward on ebook lending, libraries have turned to other sources to fill their virtual shelves. Smaller publishers have been more open to getting their ebooks into libraries, and some authors with self-published titles have offered their work at a discounted rate to build their readership.

Buying ebooks from alternate sources allows libraries to broaden their collection and offer more titles from unknown and indie authors. This exposes patrons to works they might not have discovered otherwise, and isn’t that ultimately what libraries are all about?

About Stacy Ranta

Stacy Ranta

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