Local libraries advocate for readers’ rights after publishers decide to limit ebook access

By Christine Perkins, executive director, Whatcom County Library System, and Rebecca Judd, director, Bellingham Public Library

Troubling limits imposed by publishers on public library purchases of electronic books and audiobooks are inspiring a strong response from libraries across the country. We are raising awareness about this issue because pricing and access barriers make it difficult for libraries to fulfill our central mission: ensuring access to information for all.

The Whatcom County Library System and Bellingham Public Library are proud to participate in the Washington Anytime Library, an ebook consortium of 45 public libraries in the state of Washington. Working together enables us to loan electronic books across our member libraries, increasing the variety of materials available to local readers and maximizing taxpayer dollars. But even working together, there can be long waiting lists for our most popular ebooks and eaudiobooks. Unfortunately, recent moves by some publishers may make those wait times even longer.

Last summer, the science fiction publisher Tor announced a temporary embargo on selling select new releases to public libraries. Libraries had to wait months after the release date to purchase ebooks. Just recently, a major eaudiobook publisher (Blackstone) has decided to embargo select releases from purchase by public libraries for three months. And now Tor’s parent company Macmillan has decided to limit public libraries to one copy of new releases in digital formats followed by a two-month embargo on purchasing additional copies.

Already, libraries pay three to five times the consumer price for an ebook or eaudiobook. For most ebooks, consumers pay $9.99. In comparison, 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 library users.

Libraries buy multiple copies of ebooks to maintain purchase-to-hold ratios that minimize wait times. For Washington Anytime Library, that ratio is currently 7:1. That means for every 7 holds placed on a book, the consortium purchases one copy. For especially popular ebooks, Bellingham and Whatcom County libraries purchase additional copies from our local budgets.

Even with these measures, wait times can be long for in-demand new releases. For example, months after publication, bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens still has 251 holds on 43 copies of the ebook. If we had been limited to only one digital copy and then had to wait eight weeks to buy more, the wait list during the embargo period would be in years rather than months.

By severely limiting libraries’ ability to buy their books, publishers are hoping to turn borrowers into buyers. These steps directly threaten public libraries’ ability to serve customers and to uphold our commitment to equitable access for all. Publishers cite impacts on sales  as their rationale for making it harder to borrow books, but we believe that a community with minimal barriers to reading is best for all of us: library users, book buyers, authors, and publishers.  Besides, according to a Pew Research study, 60% of frequent library users have also bought a book by an author they first discovered at a library.

In order to send a clear message to publishers that library sales restrictions are not acceptable, the Washington Anytime Library has decided not to purchase eaudiobooks from Blackstone Publishing for six months, and we have joined the American Library Association’s protest of Macmillan’s new policies (#ebooksforall). By making this stand, we are defending against the monetization of reading and fighting for equitable access to reading materials.

These embargos are the latest evidence of a troubling trend in the publishing industry. Your local libraries are exploring all possible avenues to ensure access to the broadest possible range of materials while spending library funds effectively and responsibly. We invite you to join the conversation. Show your support of libraries by getting and using a library card – the smartest card in your wallet.  Take a photo of you with your library card and post it to your social media with #ebooksforall, @wclslibraries (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), and @bellinghampubliclibrarywa (Facebook) and @bplconnects (Instagram and Twitter).  If you live within Bellingham city limits, apply for a card online at bellinghampubliclibrary.org; if you live in Whatcom County outside Bellingham city limits, apply online at wcls.org.