As e-books fly off of virtual shelves, libraries and publishers are locked
in a messy tug of war over the way digital books are regulated (spoiler: not very well
. Five years ago, e-books occupied a tiny corner of the book industry. In 2016, only ¼
of Americans had read an e-book within the previous year, with most being blissfully unaware their libraries even offered digital books. Overdrive – the digital marketplace for publishers and libraries – was slow, inelegant and outdated.
Fast forward to today.
As the pandemic forced libraries to close their doors, physical books started collecting dust. So their sleek, digital counterparts stepped out of the shadows and into their place. Last year, Overdrive surpassed
430 million checkouts – more than double the amount it had in 2016.
- TL;DR: e-books saved libraries.
But: they’re also hurting them. The laws that govern physical books don’t apply to e-books, so publishers can price digital books however they want. Instead of following an ‘ownership’ model – where libraries pay a fixed cost for a certain number of books – publishers opt for a ‘subscription’ model:
- E-books are bought via a license that includes a limit on the number of times a book can be checked out and/or the length of time a library holds an edition.
- The result: libraries pay $40 per copy—compared with the $15 you might pay to buy the same book online.
Publishers PoV: new tech has reduced friction too much; libraries have made it too easy for people to read books without buying them, which eats into publisher revenues. So subscription price hikes are necessary.
Libraries PoV: frictionless library lending actually helps book sales.
The e-book war has been under the radar for a while… but Washington is starting to pay attention.
The House Antitrust Subcommittee launched an investigation into the digital marketplace last year. Alan Inouye, director at the American Library Association, says
- “Libraries have almost no rights in the digital age. In the long run, there needs to be a change in the environment or in the game. That means legislation or regulation.”
My take: an ideal solution for e-book regulation is tricky. There’s no middle ground between subscription and ownership that can satisfy both libraries and publishers.