Public Libraries Take On E-Books

Patrons love checking out books for their e-readers. What a shame publishers still don't know what and how to charge.


Reuters/Alex Grimm

At every stage of the extraordinary surge in the use of e-books over the past few years, issues have emerged that send all concerned into a swivet. Yet, for all the threats of boycotts, litigation, and drastic overhaul of time-honored publishing practices, so far negotiations have eventually led to reasonable solutions, and the transformation of the reading experience for millions of people moves on.

To recap briefly: there was a confrontation with Google about protection of copyright in its plans for digitizing a vast virtual catalog. A federal judge's rejection of a proposed settlement with publishers and authors as too broad is a setback, but discussions will certainly continue. After a tug-of-war over who should set the list prices for e-books, retailers have conceded that right to publishers. Author royalties are being adjusted to accommodate new models of distribution, and digital rights management (the fancy name for piracy control) no longer looms as more than a technical matter, though theft continues to be a problem.

HarperCollins disclosed that, going forward, its e-books would expire after the book was loaned out 26 times, and libraries would need to make another purchase.

The latest flap involves e-books in public libraries, where they are becoming increasingly popular in the systems across the nation that now offer them. According to the American Library Association, 66 percent of public libraries already make e-books available to borrowers.

My Connecticut library is served by OverDrive, the major distributor of e-books. Today, I could sign up for The Social Animal, by columnist David Brooks, whose book is currently on the New York Times bestseller list. As soon as the current borrower is finished, I'll be notified and the book will be made available for my download. Yes, there is a waiting list. But, for the price of a little patience, the book will be mine for two weeks to read on a digital device of my choosing (except Amazon's Kindle, which is closed to outside material). According to Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, there are now about 1,000 publishers making e-books available through his distribution network, and 25,000 books a month are being added. Since the start of 2011, the increase in usage has been twice the rate it was a year ago, he said.

What seemed a relatively smooth process of expansion at that pace was upended when HarperCollins, publisher of Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Palin, and scores of other notables, disclosed that, going forward, its e-books would expire after the book was loaned out 26 times, and libraries would need to make another purchase. Until now, the assumption and the practice was that, once a digital book was purchased, it would be there in perpetuity. Librarians were outraged, and boycotts of HarperCollins (including in the most extreme cases their print and audio books also) were imposed in a number of systems. Julie Bosman provided a thorough recap of the dispute in the New York Times. On a local level, the Omaha World Herald added grassroots details. The Nebraska Library Commission's 64 members were among those supporting an immediate boycott. David Mixdorf, director of the South Sioux City Library, said his board had ordered that no further acquisitions of any kind be made from HarperCollins. "We have to draw the line somewhere on our budget," he told the newspaper. "This hits us pretty hard at a time when our budget seems to be constantly shrinking."

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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