Libraries and Ebooks: Spending Big on Fifty Shades of Grey

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Related: Libraries Respond

How much do you think is a appropriate for a library system to pay to give access to its patrons to an ebook like Fifty Shades of Grey?

I realize this is a loaded question, but it’s loaded for a reason: I’m on a webcast right now with the American Library Association in which one librarian — Sari Feldman, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, who is also running for the American Library Association presidency in 2015-2016 — revealed that her library spent roughly $23,400 on purchasing 300 ebook copies of the E.L. James best-seller.

Now, before you become outraged about the level of expense for a public institution for the book OR that each copy cost the library system about $78, let me give some background.

Hear more about libraries, ebooks and discoverability at Digital Book World 2014

I spoke with American Library Association leadership a few weeks ago in a private meeting about a wide range of topics. When I challenged them on the idea that maybe it wasn’t essential to the library mission to provide patrons with easy, free access to titles like Fifty Shades, they had a very convincing rejoinder:

Barbara Stripling (ALA president): When some people can read these best-sellers and others can’t, it marginalizes those people. These books are a literary touchstone and everyone deserves to have a chance to be a part of that.


Me: How does it relate to the overall mission of the library?


Stripling: So, when you restrict access to any information, the library has been thwarted in fulfilling its mission to give people in the community the information they need.

But what about something like Fifty Shades or best-seller Gone Girl? Is that information people “need”? Another good answer from the ALA:

Maureen Sullivan (ALA past-president): It’s not for us to decide that the public needs Gone Girl as much, more, or less than any other book.

Read more of this interview here.

While all of that resonates with me, I think it needs to be balanced with dollars-and-cents sensibility — $23,400?! So people can read a book that I think many would agree has very little value when it comes to promoting literacy, spreading and securing democracy and giving people access to the information they “need.”

“Laters baby” doesn’t strike me as essential.

But that’s the great thing about libraries: They don’t make those judgement calls — nor should they. If it’s in the zeitgeist, it should be in the library.

Except that they do. Go to your local library and say to the librarian there, “what should I read next?” And they’ll tell you. I’d wager few would suggest Fifty Shades before many, many other titles.

So, on the one hand, it’s not for librarians to decide what they offer. On the other, it is for them to suggest what you should read. And buying a lot of copies of something is a way of doing that.

Therefore, I would suggest that it’s a foolish use of funds to buy more than a handful of copies of a very expensive ebook if it doesn’t have extreme value as judged by the librarian to promoting literacy, spreading and securing democracy or providing a community with access to information it “needs” — no matter what the demand.

Librarians aren’t robots. They can make judgement calls and do every time you ask them, “what should I read next?”

If it were cheap or free to provide, sure, make sure everyone who wants to can read a copy of anything they want. But that’s not how libraries and publishers currently work together on ebooks and tough decisions sometimes have to be made.

Imagine the library only purchased 10 copies of Fifty Shades for $780, forcing its patrons to wait weeks and months or even years to read it for free. It may not be ideal, but aren’t there better ways that library could have used nearly $23,000?

Now, on to the matter of working with publishers. Penguin Random House, the publisher of the ebook, reportedly charged roughly $78 a copy for it (and now charges about $48 a copy, according to Feldman on the webcast). Is that right? Is it fair?

I would argue that it’s a business decision and if it helps the company continue to bring in revenue and keep people employed, then it’s “right.” If outcry from librarians is so loud that it causes PRH public relations issues, or for its library sales to decrease, then I would say it may not be the right decision.

Librarians: If the ebooks pricing problem is such a big issue, I have some very simple advice for you as to how to change it — stop buying the ebooks at those prices and on those terms. The publishers want your business. There are many people at each major publisher who would be under a lot of pressure if the revenue they derived from libraries plummeted and they might be forced then to rethink their business models.

By spending over $20,000 at one library system for one book, even though it may priced egregiously high, is only reinforcing that pricing policy. You’re saying to them, “It’s working! Keep on charging us these prices because we’ll pay!”

I think the ALA has done a great job advocating for libraries and certainly if the organization’s goal is to get more access to ebooks for patrons, it is moving forward with that goal. But when I hear that a library system spent that kind of money on providing its patrons that kind of book, well, it makes me think that there’s something wrong here.

Libraries and ebooks isn’t just about right and wrong. It’s about dollars and cents and librarians — and perhaps publishers — need to know that.

Related: Libraries Respond

At Digital Book World this year, we’ll be holding a pre-conference workshop with the ALA on libraries and discoverability. It should be a great session and I urge everyone interested in forwarding this and other related conversations should attend. Learn more about the Digital Book World 2014 conference here

28 thoughts on “Libraries and Ebooks: Spending Big on Fifty Shades of Grey

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  3. Liz Nealon, Publisher, StarWalk Kids Media

    The problem here is not with the library’s decision – as you pointed out, they are simply making sure that they can meet the demand of their patrons for a popular new book.

    The issue that we should be discussing is the refusal of legacy publishers to allow multiple users to access the same eBook simultaneously. After all, it is not a physical book that can only be loaned out to a single patron at a time. An eBook is software and it is perfectly possible for multiple patrons to be reading the same eBook.

    We allow multiple user access to our eBooks in libraries for the simple reason that we don’t believe that a child who is excited about a book should be told s/he needs to wait three weeks to be able to read it. We do charge libraries a reasonable premium if they want to buy eBooks that are never going to wear out and used by multiple readers, and there is no reason that other publishers cannot do the same.

    But $78 for a single copy of an eBook that can only be read by a single user at a time? That’s highway robbery, and that’s what this article should be talking about.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield

      Of course publishers could sell libraries a license to use and lend out as many copies but they haven’t. That is, similar to others I point out above, a business decision.

      Highway robbery is when you’re put in an impossible situation and you HAVE to pay. Libraries don’t have to take it. They can not buy ebooks. Or not buy from companies that don’t offer them at prices or terms they like. That’s business.

      Your company (which as you know I admire) has made a business decision to grant libraries the rights you do. How is that working out? Is it profitable? Do you feel enhances or undercuts your business in other areas? Would you recommend the model to other publishers? All other publishers or just certain kinds?

    1. Jeremy Greenfield

      For ebooks and libraries, most publishers sell licenses for single use. So, if a library buys a “copy” of an ebook, it’s like buying one copy of the print edition: only one patron can use it at a time.

  4. Shannon

    I was on the same webcast, Jeremy. I wholeheartedly agree. Fifty Shades was a passing fad and should have been treated that way by the library system. Why 300 copies indeed! How about 50, regardless of the size of their user base. And if a user can’t access that book immediately from the library, while they’re waiting, their librarian can suggest similar books – or better yet, push them to read something of value. Or at least something just as entertaining.

  5. Paul Kobasa

    Mr. Greenfield is conflating a library’s acquisition policy with its reader advisory service. Libraries design their acquisition policies according to such factors as type (school library, public library, academic library) and service community composition (K-8 school; urban, suburban, rural…). When a library user asks a librarian for a recommendation of what to read, the librarian’s reader-advisory skill kicks in. Whereas library acquisition policies may be highly inclusive, so as to try to anticipate and fulfill a community’s expectations of its library, when an individual asks for guidance, the librarian, in his or her reader-advisory role, most likely will ask a few clarifying questions and then selectively recommend suitable books.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield

      You might be true, Paul. But in the face of change among publishers and readers, don’t you think libraries should consider changing, too? Can’t librarians use their judgement when confronted with very expensive things, user demand, industry changes, etc?

      I’m not saying they should — or what they should do at all — I’m just suggesting it be considered.

  6. Michael W. Perry

    Professions tend to be inbred and develop dogmas that defy good sense. This is one: \When some people can read these best-sellers and others can’t, it marginalizes those people. These books are a literary touchstone and everyone deserves to have a chance to be a part of that.\

    Actually, there’s a way that people use every day to read books they can’t afford. They borrow that book from a friend or trade around. It ‘marginalizes people\ to think that they’re too incompetent to do that.

    Also, for obscure books, borrowing from friends might be hard but not for bestsellers such as Fifty Shades. And that’s not getting into whether that particular ‘touchstone’ book is good for people and deserves a wide circulation or if it simply appeals in a less-than-helpful way to women with dull and empty lives.

    Librarians could respond to these overpriced titles in ways that would put pressure on publishers. For those titles, they could, for instance, set up displays stressing \Don’t buy this book. Check it out from us.\ Preventing perhaps a dozen sales for each loan copy that costs too much would probably drive publishers who overprice their books into the red, forcing them to change. That’s meeting power with power. The publishers have the books. Libraries have access to readers of books. Librarians should set use their power.

    And yes, I know it’s probably futile to expect librarians to also acquire some sense about when books are valuable for people and when they aren’t. Out-of-shape men spend too much time watching sports on TV when they should be out-of-doors and active. Networks don’t want that to change. Women display the same folly with romance novels. Librarians don’t want that to change.

    I should add that I agree with Liz Nealon’s remark that treating ebooks like print books and insisting on ownership to check a book out is ridiculous. If these publishers had any sense–a giant if–they’d realize that the real money lies in near universal and free distribution with a per-checkout fee for use.

    You can almost define stupid by this persistent insistence that ebooks must fit into the model of printed books. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became billionaires because they understood what the new technology meant. The major publishers are going to become minor publishers if they don’t do the same.

    1. James S.

      The problem with charging a per-checkout fee is that it plays havoc on budgeting. How do you budget for an unknown variable? What happens if you underestimate and it takes you into the red?

      I purchase e-books for the library where I work and I don’t buy e-books with inflated prices, checkout limits, or any such shenanigans. Sure, I can’t offer the best sellers or most popular authors but I can provide books by self-publishers and smaller publishers who are friendly towards libraries. I’d rather spend my budget that way than send the wrong message that this sort of behavior is okay.

  7. Susanna Smith

    I was listening to that webcast too, and equally aghast at the amount spent – and the quantity purchased! And I have to agree with you here, Jeremy. Why spend so much for eBooks when you can buy five – or more! – print copies and serve more folks. Yeah, yeah, yeah, space and book damage and all that… but good grief. Enough is enough. If we stop buying their eBooks, they’ll start reconsidering their insane pricing structure. 23k is just at half of my college’s total book budget for the year. YIKES!

  8. Ruth Eisenberg

    I agree with the author. The librarian profession seems to have drifted from its core values while contending with the digital revolution Ms. Feldman gives her patrons \what they want\ in the form of DVDs and popular fiction to placate them. The Cuyahoga County Public Library Board embarked on a $200 million facilities master plan against the wishes of the community. Although ALA has promoted \Community Engagement\ the communities in Cuyahoga County were not given the opportunity to vote on whether or not they wanted new buildings. Most recently the Library Board sold a library building that is on the National Register of Historic Places; it has been the community library for 60 years. Cost of renovation is $5 million and a new library will cost $12.6 million. The sale of this public space to one private individual for $755,000 is not defensible. That is only 32 best sellers No wonder someone pulled her hair!

  9. Ruth Eisenberg

    As noted, Sari Feldman is running for ALA president. Cuyahoga County Public Library Board, under Ms. Feldman’s leadership, has acted in direct contradiction to ALA ‘s initiative The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities. Prior to implementing a $200 million Facilities Master Plan, no community survey was done and they are in the process of selling the Telling Mansion, a building on the National Register of Historic Places, and a library branch for 60 years. They are selling it from the public to one private individual despite 16 months of community protest. The sale price is $755,000-the equivalent of 9,679 ebook versions of Fifty Shades of Grey. No wonder someone tried to pull her hair!

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  11. Calee Lee, Xist Publishing

    This is why we price our children’s ebooks at around 1/2 the cost of a print edition. Not 8-10 times it. Not even our unlimited access books are priced that way. We do this partly because we’re fairly new to the space, but more so because once you get a child reading, the last thing you want to happen is for he or she to run out of books.

    Unfortunately for many digital library collections, the number of picture books available for checkout is fewer than many preschool children will devour in a month.

    Librarians have done a great job working to provide access to all adults who want to read digitally; we’re hoping to see that translate to a commitment to provide children’s ebooks (including picture books) to all populations as well.

  12. Heather

    Thank you for this. I attended the same event and thought I was a bit crazy/over-the-board for my angry reaction to those purchasing numbers. Your post — and the comments — validated that I was absolutely correct in my reaction. Librarians — especially those with public funding — must balance patron demand with being good stewards of the tax money we’ve been trusted with to spend wisely.

  13. Adam

    I wonder if you’d be this upset if the title in question were something you’re more comfortable with like Harry potter or a Stephen King novel. Just b/c you don’t approve of a title doesn’t mean it’s not a supply & demand issue. Many people don’t go to the physical library ever, choosing instead to use their eBooks. If you deny them that right by “choosing not to buy” what’s popular because you disagree with it then they’ll stop using the library entirely.

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