Bob KretschmanSpecial to the Free Press

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January 3, 2013
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Mesa County Libraries work to overcome publishers' resistance to lending

Mesa County Libraries continue to see increasing numbers of patrons using eReader devices, such as Nooks and Kindles. As those devices become more popular, so do eBooks.Libraries are a key source of eBooks for many readers. Books in electronic format can be borrowed on a device for a specific period of time, just like a physical book from a library shelf. For readers, the stories in those pages remain the same regardless of format, but behind the scenes, libraries and publishers are battling over how and whether to make eBooks available for library lending.Ebook users who visit library websites looking for electronic copies of current best-sellers quickly find that many of the most popular titles aren't available. The problem isn't that they're all checked out; the problem is that some of the nation's largest publishers simply won't license eBooks to libraries. Other large publishers - those that do license eBooks to libraries - charge libraries as much as five times more than consumers pay for the same title. (Technically, publishers license eBooks to libraries, rather than sell them.) Douglas County Libraries in eastern Colorado has published a list of prices that provide a window into how much libraries must pay for eBooks. For example, consumers can buy an electronic copy of "The Twelve" for $12.99 from or Barnes & Noble. Libraries must pay $84 for one electronic copy. In comparison, the physical version of "The Twelve" sells to libraries for about $15.50 per copy, while consumers pay approximately $17.Like a physical book, most eBooks circulated by public libraries can be checked out to only one patron at a time (although some titles are acquired by libraries for unlimited use). If a library sees enough demand for a book such as "The Twelve," it might decide to buy five electronic copies to lend its patrons, costing a total of $420. A purchase of five physical copies would cost about $77.50. Such eBook pricing by publishers can quickly consume a library's book-purchase budget.Douglas County Libraries' report also shows that only six titles on a recent USA Today Top 25 Best-Selling Books list were available to libraries in eBook format, regardless of price.

Publishers worry that the sale of eBooks to libraries, and the subsequent lending of those titles to library patrons, is not a profitable or sustainable business model for the publishers.Their concern stems in part from the fact that eBooks don't physically wear out, like ink-on-paper copies do. Consequently, libraries theoretically can buy a title only once and lend it an infinite number of times, costing the publisher the opportunity to sell another copy to the library when the first one wears out. This concern has led one large publisher to limit library eBooks to 26 checkouts; after the 26th checkout, the library must buy another copy to continue lending the title. The publisher, HarperCollins, claims the limit is reasonable because physical books tend to wear out after 26 checkouts, but libraries say hard-copy books can circulate many more than 26 times before they need to be retired.Libraries also want better pricing from publishers, since they tend to buy many copies and provide wide exposure for titles. Some of that exposure may translate into sales; a recent poll by the American Library Association and eBook lending provider OverDrive revealed that people who borrow eBooks also buy an average of 3.2 print and electronic books per month.While national library organizations and publishers try to work out solutions to the big-picture problem of eBook availability to libraries, many individual libraries and local library consortiums are taking steps to make more eBook titles available to patrons.Mesa County Libraries is part of the Marmot Library Network, a consortium of 22 libraries mostly on the Western Slope that is working to make more eBooks available through member libraries. Marmot libraries purchase many titles through OverDrive, which acquires eBooks from publishers and makes them available through its platform. But Marmot and its member libraries also are working to buy eBooks directly from smaller publishers. By purchasing directly from the smaller publishers, Marmot and its libraries own the books in perpetuity and enjoy significantly better pricing than what is charged by providers like OverDrive, says Jimmy Thomas, Marmot's executive director.One of Marmot's goals is to purchase high-quality titles that aren't available through OverDrive, Thomas says. The eBook collection available to Marmot's member libraries is larger than it was a year ago and is steadily growing, giving patrons who use eReaders a much greater selection than they've had in the past.

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The Post Independent Updated Jan 3, 2013 03:32PM Published Jan 3, 2013 03:30PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.