May 23, 2024 - News

Libraries reckon with high e-book costs

Illustration of a library card with a cutout of a cursor arrow in the middle.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

High e-book prices are forcing local librarians to make tough choices as the popularity of digital checkouts surge.

Why it matters: Ongoing price disputes between libraries and book publishers threaten to limit patrons' access.

👀 Eye-popping stat: Locally, digital checkouts are on the verge of surpassing physical materials.

  • Digital materials accounted for 48% of all checkouts at Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML) in 2023, the library system tells Axios.

Yes, but: There's a significant price difference between physical books and their digital counterparts.

  • It costs the library $75 to get a single digital license of Harlan Coben's latest novel, "Think Twice." The e-book can be checked out by one patron at a time and the license expires after two years.
  • A physical copy costs just $16 and can remain permanently in the collection.

What they're saying: "We have so much interest in digital and the pricing is so high it's a struggle to meet that demand," says Cathy Mason, who is in charge of digital buying for CML.

Between the lines: CML partners with other local libraries to help balance the costs, but maintaining access to the most popular titles can mean not being able to afford as many from independent publishers.

Zoom out: Dayton Metro Library announced earlier this year it will no longer offer access to Hoopla, a leading e-book and streaming provider.

The other side: The Association of American Publishers argues it must protect authors' rights to be fairly compensated for their work.

  • And digital providers like Hoopla and Libby say they're just middlemen with little say on pricing and terms.

What we're watching: The Ohio Library Council is focused on lobbying state lawmakers for funding to cover increased costs, Michelle Francis, who directs the council, tells Axios.

  • The organization is also advocating for federal copyright reform to bring prices down.
  • "We're not asking for it for free, we just want it reasonably priced," she says.

Go deeper: Inside libraries' battle for better e-book access

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