Why e-books, e-audiobooks could be harder to snag at your local library

E-books and e-audiobooks are the fastest growing area of borrowing at Canadian libraries. But it could get tougher to get your hands on them, according to library staffers, who are calling out major publishers for setting high prices, restrictive contract terms and exclusivity windows.

Libraries need to give customers digital content 'the way they want to use it,' advocates say

E-books and e-audiobooks are the fastest growing area of borrowing at Canadian libraries. But it could get tougher to get your hands on them, as libraries are expressing concern about major publishers setting high prices, restrictive contract terms and exclusivity windows for coveted digital content. (LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

You might call her an ideal library-goer: Andrea Querido visits her local branch weekly — even blogs for it — and describes libraries as "a place of community and connection."

And when Querido's son was born five years ago, the communications professional fell in love with a new section of the stacks: e-books, which along with e-audiobooks, make up the fastest growing area of borrowing for many libraries today.

"You'd have those late nights and you could be on your phone or your iPod, reading, while he's feeding or you're changing a diaper," recalled Querido, an avid reader and book club member who lives in Brampton, Ont.

But as any library patron could tell you, there can be lengthy waits for e-book and e-audiobook titles — especially for A-list authors. Take, for instance, Oprah Winfrey's latest self-help title, The Path Made Clear, published in March.

"I think for the audiobook, it's 135 days to wait. And then the e-book is something like 35 days," said Querido. "If you're willing to wait, it's great. But if you want to get your hands on that, it's kind of a long time to wait for the book everyone's talking about." 

That kind of wait could get even longer now, as libraries call out multinational publishers for high prices, restrictive terms and exclusivity windows that they say make it tougher to get e-content into the hands of eager customers.

Devoted library patron Andrea Querido enjoys e-books, but recognizes the challenges libraries face to offer popular titles, which she's noticed can come with lengthy wait lists. (CBC)

Print books remain the bread and butter of Canadian libraries, but increasingly patrons are developing a taste for digital content — and they're hungry for more, according to the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC), an umbrella group representing 45 member systems across the country.

In the last three years, for example, use of e-audiobooks at six of Canada's largest public libraries grew by 82 per cent, the council said. 

But what isn't widely known is that publishers charge libraries a significantly higher price for digital books than print versions — both of which are loaned out to customers on a one-to-one basis. For example, one physical copy of Linwood Barclay's 2018 thriller A Noise Downstairs costs a Canadian library $19.20, while a single digital copy costs $65, the council says.

Libraries have long been lobbying for better rates from the "big five" multinational publishers: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. That group, collectively, controls the majority of the North American consumer book publishing market.

Now, in a world where many consumers have moved away from owning physical copies of books, movies, video games, software and music in favour of digital access via subscriptions and streaming, libraries are facing a new challenge.

'Changing digital marketplace'

Multinational book publishers are changing how they provide digital content to libraries: rather than selling e-books and e-audiobooks for perpetual use, they are adopting a business model whereby libraries must repurchase digital content after a set period.

Hachette Book Group is the latest publisher to make this switch, announcing in mid-June that its perpetual ownership model for digital content would be replaced by a metered system where libraries must repurchase e-books every two years. The change, which goes into effect as of July 1, will be accompanied by a price decrease (up to 25 per cent) for a "vast majority" of titles, the company said.

"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 e-books and digital audiobooks to make access to our catalog consistent," Hachette Book Group said in a statement.

Penguin Random House, which moved from perpetual access to a two-year metered model in October 2018, said its decision came "in large part in response to conversations and data provided by its partners."

Libraries are worried that digital content pricing changes will diminish what they can offer to patrons, a growing percentage of whom have turned to e-books and e-audiobooks. (CBC)

Exclusivity is another thorn in the side of library systems. Macmillan's sci-fi division, Tor Books, and Blackwood Publishing are among those testing out embargo windows — holding back new and in-demand digital content from libraries for weeks or months, with some claiming library e-lending has had an "adverse impact" on retail sales.

On occasion, digital content isn't made available to libraries at all. If you're looking for the digital audiobook of Justin Trudeau's memoir Common Ground, for instance, you'll have to buy it from Audible.com. The Colm Feore-narrated audiobook is an exclusive, only available from the Amazon-owned, U.S.-based subscription service.

Concern over access

"It took a long time for all the multinationals to get on the board with public libraries. It took a long time before they all agreed to start loaning [digital content] to public libraries," said Sharon Day, director of branch services and collections at the Edmonton Public Library and chair of the CULC's e-content working group.

After "a period of relative calm," she said, libraries are now seeing a slide backward in their relationship with multinational publishers.

It took a long time for multinational publishers to get on board with offering digital content to public libraries in the first place, says Sharon Day, director of branch services and collections at the Edmonton Public Library. (CBC)

While the CULC says it recognizes libraries can't pay publishers the same low price point as individual consumers, they are calling attention to what they view as inflated costs for digital content and expressing alarm over the budding trend of restricted access — all of which limits what libraries can offer their patrons.

"We need to be at the place where our customers are, to be providing customers with content the way they want to use it," Day said.

These challenges, coupled with funding cuts in many regions, hampers the core mandate of public libraries: to provide equal access to information for all members of our society, she said.

Beyond the convenience of digital content, "it's imperative for the most vulnerable parts of our society that they have access to information.… Democracy depends on an informed citizenship," said Day.

A patron scrolls through the Edmonton Public Library website in search of e-book content. (CBC)

And while convenience is a key reason many have become fans of e-books and e-audiobooks, for others it's simply a necessity.

Senior citizens, someone at home recovering from surgery, those with mobility challenges, people who are blind or visually impaired, those on fixed or low incomes — there are many different segments of the population that rely on their local libraries for information and entertainment, said Querido.

"I don't want to say second-class citizens, but when you're talking about seniors and those who can't afford it … you're making that distinction."

With files from Nigel Hunt and Deana Sumanac-Johnson


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