Librarians fear e-book prices will affect people’s ability to borrow books: NPR

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Local libraries pay much more for e-books than for physical books. Librarians fear that this price hike will affect people’s ability to borrow the books they want to read.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you borrow an e-book from your local library, the library actually pays a lot more for that book than they would pay for a physical book. Librarians fear this will affect their ability to lend out the books readers love. Dave Blanchard from our Planet Money team tells us how we got here.

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: There are two things you need to understand about eBooks that differentiate them from physical books. First, physical books have a shelf life. Michael Blackwell is a librarian in Maryland. The books he sees in the return bin are not always in very good condition.

MICHAEL BLACKWELL: The brand new book with the coffee stain on it, canine behavior books that come back chewed or…

BLANCHARD: (Laughs) It didn’t work.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Potty training books you wonder exactly what’s in them.

BLANCHARD: (Laughs) God.

He says most books last around 30 to 100 loans. But e-books are electronic files. They never wear out. So that’s the first difference. The second difference – a physical book can only be loaned to one person at a time. Libraries therefore generally buy several copies. But an e-book is just a digital file. Hypothetically, a library could just buy an e-book and then copy and share it endlessly, which is starting to seem a bit unfair to authors. So they made a deal. Librarians and publishers agreed, let’s just assume e-books are like physical books. First, we will limit the number of people who can borrow an e-book.

BLACKWELL: One person at a time uses it the same way one person looks at a physical book at a time.

BLANCHARD: And second, libraries can’t just lend out an e-book ad infinitum. There is a limit. For example, HarperCollins books can be loaned 26 times. After that, the e-book disappears from the library catalog, like the chewed-up dog training book should be removed from the shelves. This system worked for a while, but in the mid-2010s a popular app called Libby appeared. Libby makes it incredibly easy to get eBooks on your phone or tablet. The publishers were scared.

JOHN SARGENT: I ​​used to want to borrow a book from the library.

BLANCHARD: John Sargent was CEO of Macmillan until 2020.

SARGENT: I ​​would drive there. I find the book. I take it in front, pa, pa, pa (ph), take it home. And then I’m three quarters. My two weeks are over. What am I going to do? I have to take it back to the library and check it again. Oh, there’s a waiting list. I can not do that. OKAY. I’ll just keep it. And then here is your library just fine.

BLANCHARD: With e-books, there is none of that.

SARGENT: Suddenly it’s free, and it’s frictionless.

BLANCHARD: And that lack of friction scared John. He thought no one would buy books anymore. And that would not only affect publishers, but also the ability of bookstores and authors to survive. So he had an idea on how to slow him down.

SARGENT: Libraries don’t have a lot of money. And as long as we kept the prices high enough, they wouldn’t have the budget.

BLANCHARD: So Macmillan, along with most other publishers, started raising the price of e-books for libraries towards $50, $60 a piece. Librarians say they don’t have big budgets, and these prices force them to make tough decisions about which books they buy. Michael, the librarian, is now involved with a group that is lobbying for state laws that would lower the prices of e-books. He says it would help make library catalogs more than the Stephen Kings of the world.

BLACKWELL: We’re going to be able to distribute the money to new authors, to authors who have written an interesting book but not many people have heard of it yet.

BLANCHARD: But so far none of the laws have come into effect.

Dave Blanchard, NPR News.

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