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The Whole "Library eBooks Kill Retail eBook Sales" Idea Makes No Sense

I was working on a blog post this morning on Scholastic ebooks being in OverDrive when I got to thinking about the current uproar over library ebooks.

It seems a lot of people in publishing are convinced that library ebooks are responsible for retail ebook sales being down. This belief has been around for over a year now (since Macmillian first established that trial embargo on library ebooks in July 2018), and it’s now grown to include a concatenating belief that Amazon is the one telling publishers about the supposed connection between library ebooks and retail ebook sales declining.

I still don’t beleive that Amazon is doing that; I think it is an example of gossip spread in the industry before showing up in the media. But I don’t want to debate that today; instead, I want to discuss the underlying premise.

The idea that library ebooks (in and of themselves) have a negative impact on retail ebook sales simply makes no sense to this ebook buyer.

It simply doesn’t match up with my understanding of how people use libraries.

BTW, the last time I pointed out that a common industry belief made no sense was in late 2017 when I debunked the then-current belief that "screen fatigue" was responsible for declining ebook sales. I never got any public kudos for my work, but when was the last time you heard a publishing CEO blame their falling retail ebook sales on screen fatigue?

No one is mentioning screen fatigue any more; now the bogeyman is library ebooks, and it makes just as little sense as the last bogeyman.

The underlying premise for this belief is that because people can get a library ebook, they won’t buy the retail ebook.  This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of consumer behavior.

We can regard consumer behavior as a decision tree, and in this case the questions near the top are:

  • Is this title available in my preferred format?
  • Can I afford to buy this title? Is it worth the cost?
  • Can I get this title at the library?

Here’s the thing the legacy industry misunderstands about that third question: the consumer is not looking for their preferred format in the library; they are simply checking availability. The consumer cares less about format than about access; if they can borrow a print book, they will read it.

This runs contrary to the legacy industry assumption that if they deny the consumer the library ebook then the consumer will buy a copy of the ebook.

Take me, for example. I only buy ebooks, but when I think the ebook costs to much (or when I can’t tell if it’s worth the expense) I will borrow the print book from the library.

For example, I borrowed Patterson’s Big Bad Amazon novel in print (the ebook was too expensive, and not worth buying in the first place) from the library, but bought Enormity as an ebook because I could get it cheap and in under a minute.

And I’m not the only one to settle for print in a pinch.

What the legacy industry appears to have forgotten is that for the past eight years they have been training library patrons to settle for print books even when we want the ebook. This has been going on ever since the Big Six started imposing checkout restrictions and high prices on library ebooks in 2011. (Sidenote: The Big Six did their best to make library ebooks unavailable while at the same time charging $18 for ten-year-old ebooks, and yet for some reason their ebook sales declined for much of that period. Go figure.)

And now, in 2019, the legacy industry suddenly think adding further restrictions on library ebooks will boost retail ebook sales?

I know that the legacy industry likes to tell itself comforting myths, but the idea that library ebooks affect ebook sales more so  than high retail ebook prices requires a unique level of denial. Y’all are running around talking about how wonderful the emperor’s new robe looks.

Am I the only one who can see he’s naked?

P.S. If I blew your mind and/or forced you to reconsider this myth, I take donations through Paypal (you can expense it as a consulting fee).

image by sphoto33 via Flickr


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The Whole “Library eBooks Kill Retail eBook Sales” Idea Makes No Sense – Ebook Borrowing/Lending Ebooks Libraries – – The Passive Voice September 20, 2019 um 5:47 pm

[…] Link to the rest at The Digital Reader […]

Disgusting Dude September 20, 2019 um 6:21 pm

You forgot two more step between library and retail print.
4- Is the book available used?
5- Do I want it *now* that badly or can I wait?

Once a book fails the second test there’s still a lot of options beyond the library.
Like moving on and getting something else.

Nate Hoffelder September 20, 2019 um 7:38 pm

I don’t buy print so I never considered used books, but you’re right. The price of used books also has a huge impact.

Randy Lea September 20, 2019 um 6:48 pm

The insane pricing for the big publishers ebooks I think is a driving force for folks to check out library offerings. Once people discover that some of the issues related to borrowing books from libraries in the past don’t exist with ebooks, such as the need to return the physical book to the library and late fees, and the great price (free), a lot of folks quickly get hooked on services like Overdrive.

Is that book borrowed from the library for free a lost sale for a ~$12 ebook? Maybe in a few cases, but having the 21 day time limit is a small irritation compared to the cost savings. If the book was priced at $1.99 instead, with no time limit, then I think a lot of library users might prefer to make a purchase.

My opinion is that the sole problem with ebook sales from the big publishers is the ridiculous price, not libraries.

I don’t believe there is a huge difference between a portion of the indie and self published ebooks and those put out by the big guys. If the publishers try to kill off library access, I think that libraries need to work with vendors like Overdrive to offer a wider range of books from smaller publishers and create ways to identity the higher quality books to readers, sort of a replacement for best seller lists.

Disgusting Dude September 20, 2019 um 8:21 pm

One could even make a case that it was ABEbooks and not Amazon that started the flatlining of tradpub that we’ve seen since 2003. Amazon bought them for a reason: to make sure that money went to them.

Focusing on ebooks and libraries is just scapegoating the wrong people and, worse, self defeating because it damages midlister and new author discovery and brand building. Sooner or later today’s big names will retire and they’ll have nobody comparable to replace them.

Xavier Basora September 20, 2019 um 9:08 pm


Another reason is that tradpub isn’t publishing the books that readers want.
I also wonder if any independent publishers or writers make their books available to libraries. If not they should consider it.

Nate Hoffelder September 21, 2019 um 12:35 am

Heh – I used to think this was just nonsense that was spouted by outsiders, but today I saw a tweet that said editors published the books they liked:

george zunic September 20, 2019 um 11:32 pm

new print books have been too expensive for decades. if they aren’t, then the print is too small to read comfortably. ebooks are often too expensive as well.

when i want to read a specific title or author , i search the public library catalog first. prefer print, but will read via the kindle app on some device. if the library doesn’t have what interests me, will check amazon for a used print copy or a digital version. am not against paying a reasonable price for a book in either format.

sometimes i browse the shelves of the salvation army, goodwill, value village or other thrift stores for a book to read. they are generally sold for a couple of dollars. after reading a printed book, donate it for the next library quarterly book sale. just about all the books sold at the library book sales are $1.

many printed or digital books are too expensive. that is why sales are flat or have diminished. greed is not good for business or readers.

Roland Denzel September 21, 2019 um 7:45 am

They’ve probably always hated the library system, only now they’re getting desperate

Nate Hoffelder September 23, 2019 um 3:47 pm

I’ve been thinking about it over the weekend and I’ve realized that this myth was invented because the publishers can’t admit to themselves that their decision to raise ebook prices is the sole cause of their current issue.

That’s why they clung to screen fatigue as the cause, and why they are insisting that library ebooks are responsible for lower ebook sales.

Xavier Basora September 22, 2019 um 6:16 am


And not not any editor but 20 year old female interns with English lit degree.
Tradpub is a lumber distribution monopoly.
Case on point Nick Cole and his CRTL ALT DELETE book (@NickColeBooks)
Just now there’s a new genre nicknamed Cruci-fiction that appeared this week.(thanks to @RAZORFIST for the genre name)

In any case, I’ve crowdfunded over 20 campaigns and have been very pleased with the books I’ve sponsored
I no longer buy from tradpub or pay attention to its authours

Felipe Adan Lerma September 23, 2019 um 10:13 am

Can’t count the number of ebooks I’ve passed up last few days because of price, some as high or higher than the print versions! Most frequently, only time I get a print book is via Half Price Books, and then usually with an additional coupon. Nice post, Nate – tweeted!

Susan Caron September 23, 2019 um 2:23 pm

The Authors Guild has welcomed the embargo Macmillan is imposing on library ebook sales because it believes that this will lead to more sales and more royalties for authors. This is sad because limiting library access to ebooks will not increase sales, as you point out, but will definitely increase piracy, already a huge problem and one that rightly terrifies both authors and publishers. "If I can’t get it for free from the library…."

Also, authors don’t seem to understand that libraries actually purchase ebooks, that is, purchase licenses to ebook files then re-purchase them every two years. I assume the authors get royalties for every purchase and re-purchase. If not, they should check their contracts.

Nate Hoffelder September 23, 2019 um 3:27 pm

that just goes to show that they are still a patsy of the publishers

Rich Loveland September 24, 2019 um 8:04 pm

Completely agree. I have noticed over many years that I’ll happily buy an ebook almost without thinking if it’s around $7. At <= $4.99 I don’t think at all. $9.99 appears to be my max price for an ebook.

When I look at a $14.99 ebook version of something that came out 5 years ago all I can think is that the publisher hates me, the customer (or that book buyers like me are not in fact the true customer, although I find it hard to understand how that could be true).

Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 09-26-2019 | The Author Chronicles September 26, 2019 um 1:01 pm

[…] Publisher Macmillan wants to limit every library to a single copy of new ebooks for the first 8 weeks. Librarians are pushing back, including asking readers to sign a petition against this practice, which would make wait lists for the new books incredibly long. Nate Hoffelder tackles Macmillan’s main complaint, saying the whole “library ebooks kill retail ebook sales” idea makes no sense. […]

Jeffrey Johnson October 1, 2019 um 7:19 pm

The sales of big 6 suck for one reason only. They have idiots setting prices. Person mention ebooks costing more than print book even after s&h cost. Mean we talking 2-3 times more even after the shipping cost. Indies cap e-books at $9.99 due to 70% rate. Some the transitional smarter than others they have almost as high as print cost on ebooks than lower as ebook ages. Others keep high or raise as get more expensive if harder to find. I have a set budget on ebooks the big 6 rarely get my money as they cost to much. I might spend more than $10 on ebook twice a year for the new tom clancy ebooks. Rest of time usually way under $10 or even $5. The Indies get bulk of them as they price better. I got 6000-7000 ebooks I say 10-20 did I spend over $10 for them all Tom Clancy ones. 99% were under $5.

John Sargent's Math Just Doesn't Add Up | The Digital Reader October 30, 2019 um 4:27 pm

[…] already previously shown that the idea that only library ebook usage can hurt retail ebook sales doesn't really make sense given what we know about library patron behavior. To put it simply, when patrons browse libraries, […]

Tricia Karlin December 11, 2019 um 6:26 pm

Curious as to why you think this: "I still don’t beleive that Amazon is doing that; I think it is an example of gossip spread in the industry before showing up in the media."

Who else has access to compelling data on library use of ebooks but Amazon.

Also: I can’t understand why there is so much focus on MacMillan’s policies on your blog, when libraries *can’t buy at any price* Amazon’s audio titles (Audible). Audible won’t sell to libraries. Period. Amazon is much more dangerous to library’s access to digital materials than Macmillan. Please spend some time on that topic.

Nate Hoffelder December 11, 2019 um 6:31 pm

I don’t beleive Amazon is doing it because no one has explained why they would do this, or actually shared proof that they are doing it.

Not also criticizing Amazon for their library ebook policy was an oversight, yes. I corrected that a few weeks later.

Diane Boyle December 28, 2019 um 12:56 am

I’ve always felt it was the pricing. E-books were taking off and then the big five colluded to raise the prices. When they succeeded, ebook sales began declining. If an ebook is overpriced–which is most best sellers, I just put a hold on at my local library through overdrive. I still buy books, but nowhere the amount I used to spend before agency pricing went into effect. I buy when ebooks are on sale or are $5.00 or less. If it’s one of my favorite authors or if it’s a book selection for one of my book clubs that I need right away, I may pay up to $9.99.

I was a bit surprised to hear they don’t sell to libraries, but then their prices are such that I buy them rather than wait for a library hold so I’ve never realized they were holding back.

Nate Hoffelder December 28, 2019 um 10:05 am

it was absolutely the retail pricing!

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