British Columbia

Expense of ebooks threatens digital library collections as 'Big 5' publisher changes business model

It's going to cost your local library a lot more to buy ebooks as publishers continue to change the way they do business.

New model restricts long-term access to ebooks, increasing acquisition and staff costs

Canadian libraries may have to limit their digital collections as another ebook publisher changes its lending model. (Emily Spartz/The Argus Leader/Associated Press)

It's going to cost your local library a lot more to buy ebooks as publishers continue to change the way they do business.

The last of the so-called Big 5 publishers — Hachette Book Group — will stop giving libraries neverending access to its book titles as of Monday, according to the Canadian Urban Libraries Council. 

Instead, the publisher will make libraries purchase ebooks and digital audio books for two-year terms, increasing the costs for libraries to build up their long-term digital collections in the same way as their hard-copy collections.

The Vancouver Public Library (VPL) calls this latest development disappointing.

"We recognize that it's a difficult time for publishers, and that pricing models for digital content need to work for the publishing industry and provide fair compensation for authors," said Kay Cahill, VPL's director of collections and technology. "However, we need them to work for library budgets too, and simply imposing high prices, embargoes and restrictive licences is not the answer."

The VPL says the rest of the Big 5 publishers — Harper Collins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster — have already moved away from the perpetual ownership model, which allowed libraries to keep titles in circulation permanently.   

Now they employ various short-term options with access to books expiring after a few years or following a set number of loans to library users.

Decline of digital collections 

According to the libraries council, Hachette has said they will be lowering most of their initial ebook prices for libraries by as much as 25 per cent, but the council argues any initial discount will be eliminated when it comes time to renew, thereby increasing costs in the long term.  

"Access to digital content is imperative for those who have low literacy or other restrictions that limit their ability to read materials in traditional formats," said the council in a statement. 

"Restrictive access and pricing models also negatively impact vulnerable populations who rely most heavily on the library: those who cannot afford to purchase individual or subscription content."

The VPL says despite print and digital copies functioning in much the same way, allowing only a single user to read a book at one time and employing seven- or three-week loan periods, perpetual access ebooks can cost up to 300 per cent more. For instance, David Baldacci's The Fallen costs the VPL $22.80 for a physical copy, and $87 for a digital copy.

Hachette issued the following statement to CBC News in response to the VPL's concerns: 

"With the changing digital marketplace, we feel that this business model better supports our entire publishing, library and bookselling ecosystem and unifies our lending terms for ebooks and digital audio books to make access to our catalog consistent."

Pursuing a mixed model 

The VPL says they are trying to persuade the Big 5 publishers to reconsider their access models, but so far only Penguin Random House has been responsive. 

It says it's speaking with the publisher about a more flexible model mixing term and perpetual access, so that libraries can procure many term copies at a lower unit cost, with a few perpetual copies at a higher unit cost.

With files from On the Coast

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Cory Correia

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