The relationships between libraries and ebook publishers are improving, according to a new report from the American Library Association, but have a ways to go.
In its 2014 State of America’s Libraries report, the ALA writes:
After years of conflict between publishers and libraries, 2013 ended with all the major publishers participating in the library ebook market, though important challenges, such as availability and prices, remain.
In 2013, both Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, which had not been selling ebooks to libraries, began pilot programs which were eventually expanded. Macmillan now sells its entire back-list of 11,000 titles to libraries nationwide and Simon & Schuster expanded its first pilot to a dozen libraries and has started a second pilot selling children’s ebooks to libraries. For the first time since the rise of ebooks, all of the major publishers and the vast majority of smaller publishers sell ebooks to libraries in one form or another.
Some library advocates, however, are far from happy with the current state of affairs.
In the ALA report, Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, called the library ebook situation “appalling,” explaining that denying libraries unfettered access to ebooks threatens the library mission to “preserve cultural heritage, provide accommodation for people with disabilities, and protect individual privacy,” according to the report.
The report goes on to point out other issues between libraries and publishers when it comes to ebooks, like the various publisher business models, privacy issues, sales of ebooks to library consortia which share the materials, accessibility to patrons with disabilities, digital preservation of content, interoperability of digital files and integration of ebooks into the overall library system of gathering, disseminating and saving information.
Amid these issues that are of concern to libraries, one stands out and ties them all together: Cost. Ebooks, unlike print books, can’t be resold by libraries and, in some cases, are more expensive for libraries to purchase than the general public. A good example of how this can put financial strain on a library is the Cuyahoga County Library System’s acquisition of some 300 ebook copies of Fifty Shades of Grey for nearly $24,000 last year. It’s exemplary of an issue libraries across the country are facing. .
Libraries believe that publishers fear them and fear cannibalization of book sales if they make it too easy or cheap for libraries to acquire ebooks, according to the report:
Major publishers and publishing associations seem to fear that libraries could circulate ebooks to thousands of readers, decimating their profits…. Some publishers refuse to work with libraries, while others insist on charging libraries many times the prices paid by their other customers.
The report calls on the ALA and other professional organizations to devote more time and effort to the issue as individual libraries have little market power on their own.