E-books and how publishers charge for them is a subject appearing in many news stories the past few months. Considering the large investment we have made in e-books, this is something we have been following closely.

After a long process, Meadville Public Library in conjunction with the other eight member libraries of Crawford County Federated Library system have begun offering free e-books at ccfls.lib.overdrive.com.  Soon after we started offering free e-books, we created a survey that asked: “Does the library pay more or less for e-books than regular books?”  More than 80 per cent of respondents said we pay the same or less.  The response is not surprising.  It is logical to think that because publishers do not have to print, assemble, ship and distribute an e-book, they would sell for less than the price of a printed book.

The truth is actually quite different.  E-books cost us $60 to $105 per title, when both the purchasing and licensing costs are included. In addition, we have to pay a yearly licensing cost, which in 2013, will be about $15.00 per title.  Not only do we have to contend with high prices but also restrictive rules. For example, we can only purchase e-books from one vendor, Overdrive.

OverDrive, at the request of the publishers, requires that every patron download Digital Rights software that enforces the rules and restrictions they (the publishers) have imposed.  The result is to make our product, “free e-books,” much harder to access than e-books from Amazon or Apple.  At Amazon, with one click, an e-book will magically appear on your Kindle.  At the CCFLS eStacks site, you have to download special software and then go through many screens to download the book.

There is no doubt that e-books are more profitable for publishers.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that e-book profit margins are 50% while print margins are 10% or less. Even more telling,  Simon and Schuster reported increased profits last quarter even though sales decreased.  Simon and Schuster also reported record sales of e-books during the same quarter.

People ask if it costs so much and the rules are so onerous, why do it?  To be relevant, we have to provide free access to information in formats the public is using.  I can imagine the last time such a disruptive change took place, when scrolls were replaced by books, a similar discussion took place. If scrolls cost less than books, should now our whole collection be in scrolls?  Of course not.  New “disruptive” technologies always change the rules by which we live.

I understand that publishers are trying to protect their rights. However, the cost to purchase and the rules on e-books are much more restrictive than print books.   Recent events make one ask if these rules are truly to protect the publishers’ rights or are they meant to discourage individuals from using free e-books from public libraries? The answer  to that question will affect the free flow of information for the next 20 years.




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