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A Year of Library/Consumer eBook Price Comparisons: Has Anything Changed?

4450159189_bb55b7b695[1]For the past year librarians with the Douglas County (CO) Libraries have been publishing a monthly price list which compared the retail price for an ebook with the price a library would have to pay (if they can buy the title at all).

The 12th such price list was compiled a few weeks back, and the librarians who compiled it took a moment to reflect on how the library ebook market has changed.

The short answer is that it hasn’t changed very much.

Each monthly list was generated by taking an existing best seller list (Amazon, NYTimes, USA Today, Kindle Store, etc) and then seeing which ebooks could be bought by libraries and how much each ebook would cost. The results have been fairly uniform, with libraries often having to pay 3 or 4 times what a consumer would pay for the same ebook.

For example, the July price list shows that 3 of the 17 titles weren’t available to libraries, and of the ones that were available only 2 titles were offered to libraries at a price even close to that of the consumer price. The rest were marked up 2 to 4 times the consumer price.

But over the past year things have changed slightly. Libraries can buy more of the titles on the July 2013 list than they could on the September 2012 list. Of course, the ebooks are as expensive now as they were a year ago but at least more are available to be purchased.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time then you’ve probably read one or another of my rants about the high price of library ebooks.  And as you can see from these lists (here, scroll down) it’s not just me. Libraries really are being overcharged.

And that’s not the worst of it.  While the monthly list shows you the prices, what it doesn’t tell you is that some of the titles are sold under expiring licenses (more details here). HarperCollins and Penguin, for example, have several titles on the July list which they sell to libraries at a considerable markup (2 to 3 times retail). Those titles are sold under a license that expires in a year.

I should think that you would care about this as much as me. That’s our tax dollars being wasted, and it is out communities being harmed by publishers refusing to deal fairly with libraries.

Luckily there are signs that state and local govt aren’t going to let the situation stand. There are signs that more and more governments are considering regulating the library book market and forcing publishers to deal fairly. That can’t happen soon enough, IMO.

American Libraries Magazine

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Common Sense August 29, 2013 um 2:47 pm

I hate getting the government involved in the free market, there’s never a good ending.

I’d rather that libraries find another source for ebooks. Sure, best sellers wouldn’t be there, but there are lots of great books not on that list.

I personally never fell for the agency model. Once that happened, I discovered indie books and small publishers, why can’t libraries do the same? Aren’t libraries supposed to be about discovery? Why can’t libraries get the free books offered by Amazon, B&N, etc. every day? Those free books are supposed to introduce you to authors you may not have heard of yet, one of the best reasons for visiting the library.

An enterprising person could create an Overdrive type of system that offers that kind of bundled deal to libraries (or work with 3M or Overdrive as an alternative). I’m sure there are small publishers and indie authors that would jump to have their books in libraries and that would be the free market solution, instead of using government force. Once the traditional publishers had some competition, their prices would come down.

Another idea… Maybe Amazon could bundle their imprints and offer them to libraries, maybe paying the author a portion of the fee for each checkout or something.

Nate Hoffelder August 29, 2013 um 4:29 pm

In that case, let’s get the govt the rest of the way out of the content market. Let’s abolish the govt-granted monopoly known as copyright.

Quinton August 30, 2013 um 9:46 am

Libraries depend on circulation for funding. If they stop carrying best-sellers, they won’t get circulation. If they don’t get circulation, they don’t get money, and we don’t have libraries.

The market isn’t "free" when companies abuse it to form monopolistic price-fixing schemes to artificially increase profit. The "free" market only works through competition, and publishers aren’t competing on price.

Sure, in a perfect world, everyone would start buying indy books and the publishers would be forced to compete or fail, but that’s a completely unrealistic outlook. Indy publishers don’t have the ability to advertise like the big dogs–they can’t get the message out that they have good content nearly as easily.

Also, if people started buying indy books like crazy, what do you think would happen? How do you think these big publishers got started? If an indy pub starts selling like crazy, they’re make the transition into a major publisher. When that happens, they’ll either be bought out, or start behaving like a regular publisher because, hey, there’s no regulation and they can make money hand over fist, so why not?

The government steps in to regulate things like this because it has to, not because it wants to. I don’t want to go back to company stores and big-time monopolies, personally.

QuirkieD August 30, 2013 um 10:30 am

In a perfect world, where no one needed to make any money, selling at the same price to libraries is absolutely the way to go. Don’t get me wrong, I frequent my local library every Saturday and I love it. It’s my video store. However, I know that by getting my books, ebooks and movies from the library, I am not spending my dollars to purchase these materials.

Companies should charge 3-4 times as much for ebooks, movies, books, etc. Considering the library circulation for best sellers (judging by the hold lists), there are hundreds of patrons in a year enjoying these resources. I think it’s fair for the producing companies to charge more.

I’m willing for tax dollars to fund these larger purchases, knowing that instead of my one copy sitting in my house, the library copy that cost 4x more and be enjoyed by many.

Quinton August 30, 2013 um 10:53 am

Yes, but what if, by lowering their prices to libraries, they sold 3 to 4 times as many books to those libraries? What if they partnered with libraries, arranging federal grant money or something along those lines to help pay for narrower margins?

It’s been proven time and again that the ability to freely download or borrow content tends to increase overall sales in the market. People borrow a book by Jim Butcher, love the crap out of it, and go buy the entire Dresden Files series one-by-one because they want to own it.

Publishers are looking at libraries as a place to lose money, but with a little clever investment, they could become a veritable gold mine.

Here’s an example from the music industry that shows P2P file sharing (free music downloads) actually had a positive impact on sales for those that partook in the free music sharing:

The record industry simply failed to recognize the trend.

I do agree with you, publishers need to make money, but I believe they can do so without screwing over libraries and the tax-paying public.

galeth April 1, 2014 um 7:33 pm

Is there any possible legal case to be made about this? If corporations are people for contributions can libraries be people who are being unfairly discriminated against by the publishers?

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