eBooks, embargoes and equal access

Dan Owens

Neill Public Library is proud to participate in the Washington Anytime Library, an e-book consortium of 40-plus small public libraries in the state of Washington. Working together is an incredibly effective use of our resources, but even working together, there can be long waiting lists for our most popular ebooks and e-audiobooks. Unfortunately, recent moves by some publishers are making it even harder for us to connect patrons to the resources they need.

Already, libraries pay three to five times the consumer price for an ebook or e-audiobook. So for most books, we often pay $50 or more for a single license that can be used by one person at a time — and that license usually expires after a certain number of uses or a certain period of time (usually two years). Once that license expires, we must purchase another license to continue to ensure access for our patrons. If you’ve ever run into a case of the Washington Anytime Library missing a title in a popular book series, that’s usually what has happened — our last license has expired, and we now have to decide between buying a new license with our limited budget, or purchasing a new, “hot” title.

Last summer, the science fiction publisher Tor announced a temporary embargo on selling their titles to public libraries. Libraries had to wait months after the release date to purchase titles for their patrons. Just recently, a major e-audiobook publisher (Blackstone) has decided also to permanently “embargo” select titles from purchase by public libraries for three months. These steps directly threaten public libraries’ ability to serve their patrons and uphold their commitment to equitable access for all. As a result, the Washington Anytime Library has decided not to purchase e-audiobooks from Blackstone Publishing for six months.

Publishers claim to have data showing ebook sales to libraries hurt the overall market for ebooks, but they have not shared any of their data and refuse to discuss specifics. In fact, there is a much more open joint project between large publishers and the largest library ebook vendor to research the impact of library ebook usage on ebook sales — and it is still ongoing. Yet prior to completion of that important project, we still see publishers changing license terms and establishing embargoes without waiting for the completed research. And they too rarely acknowledge the work libraries do to build a culture of literacy, through reading programs for children, promoting new authors, book clubs, and the many other ways libraries enhance a love of books and reading.

Neill Public Library will continue to do our best to ensure patrons have access to the broadest possible range of materials while spending library funds effectively and responsibly. And for more information about our ebooks and e-audiobooks, visit the Washington Anytime Library on the web today.

Dan Owens is the adult services librarian at Neill Public Library in Pullman.

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