Library Wars: Amazon and Publishers Vie for Control of E-Book Rentals

The widespread downloading of e-books unnerves publishers because digital files can be easily shared and proliferated at no profit


As the digital era unfolds, the role of libraries in the distribution of e-books has emerged as a significant issue of contention. While print books are still the mainstay of most libraries, and audiobooks are accepted as a regular feature, there is considerable uncertainty about how to handle e-books. Among the six largest trade publishers, only Random House has been selling e-books to libraries without restrictions, and a spokesman said that it is now "actively reviewing" its position. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster do not sell e-books to libraries at all. Hachette and Penguin withhold their newest titles, and HarperCollins caps the number of times a book can be loaned at 26 after which, in principle, it needs to be repurchased.

The soaring popularity of e-books and the dominance of Amazon and its proprietary Kindle reader have apparently made these publishers wary of the impact on sales. Smaller publishers and academic presses share those concerns and recognize that e-books could, over time, replace print books as the format of choice among students and scholars, which would seriously undermine their revenue model. About two-thirds of libraries across the country now offer some access to e-books, mostly working through OverDrive, which is the leading provider of digital books to institutions. Initially, Amazon did not make its Kindle e-books available to OverDrive. When Amazon changed that policy this past September, library patron access to e-books substantially increased, and publishers privately expressed concern that substantial numbers of e-book buyers would become borrowers instead. Steve Potash, chief executive of OverDrive, told the New York Times that connecting libraries to the Kindle "is going to bring millions of readers to the public library."

Libraries are a valued pillar of the book business, but the prospect of widespread downloading of e-books unnerves publishers because digital files can be easily shared and used in perpetuity, and because Amazon has proven to be an especially tough negotiator over terms in other aspects of the book business. Announcing before Thanksgiving that it was limiting the sales to libraries of new titles in e-book formats, Penguin said that, "due to new concerns about the security of our digital editions, we find it necessary to delay the availability of our new titles in the digital format, while we resolve concerns with our business partners." In response, Carrie Russell, director of the American Library Association's Public Access to Information program, said "Penguin says that they have security concerns with library sales which we find puzzling. There is no evidence that security breaches have been tied to public libraries or library users. One would think this is more of an issue with everyday consumers or hackers who do not want to pay for ebooks."

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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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