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Libraries Are Fighting To Preserve Your Right To Borrow E-Books

Librarian Jessamyn West writes for CNN: For the first two months after a Macmillan book is published, a library can only buy one copy, at a discount. After eight weeks, they can purchase “expiring” e-book copies which need to be re-purchased after two years or 52 lends. As publishers struggle with the continuing shake-up of their business models, and work to find practical approaches to managing digital content in a marketplace overwhelmingly dominated by Amazon, libraries are being portrayed as a problem, not a solution. Libraries agree there’s a problem — but we know it’s not us. Public libraries in the United States purchase a lot of e-books, and circulate e-books a lot. According to the Public Library Association, electronic material circulation in libraries has been expanding at a rate of 30% per year; and public libraries offered over 391 million e-books to their patrons in 2017. Those library users also buy books; over 60% of frequent library users have also bought a book written by an author they first discovered in a library, according to Pew. Even Macmillan admits that “Library reads are currently 45% of our total digital book reads.” But instead of finding a way to work with libraries on an equitable win-win solution, Macmillan implemented a new and confusing model and blamed libraries for being successful at encouraging people to read their books.

With print materials, book economics are simple. Once a library buys a book, it can do whatever it wants with it: lend it, sell it, give it away, loan it to another library so they can lend it. We’re much more restricted when it comes to e-books. To a patron, an e-book and a print book feel like similar things, just in different formats; to a library they’re very different products. There’s no inter-library loan for e-books. When an e-book is no longer circulating, we can’t sell it at a book sale. When you’re spending the public’s money, these differences matter. […] Their solution isn’t just unsupportive, it doesn’t even make sense. Allowing a library like the Los Angeles Public Library (which serves 18 million people) the same number of initial e-book copies as a rural Vermont library serving 1,200 people smacks of punishment, not support. And Macmillan’s statement, saying that people can just borrow e-books from any library, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how public libraries work. Macmillan isn’t the first of the “big five” publishers to try to tweak their library sales model to try to recoup more revenue, but they are the first to accuse libraries of being a problem for them and not a partner.


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