50 Shades of Red: Losing Our Shirts to Ebooks

July 30, 2012

This post was written by James LaRue, director of Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries and member of the ALA Digital Content and Libraries Working Group. More of LaRue’s writing can be found on his website.

For decades, public libraries have seen steady gains in use. We check out more books, get more visits both physical and virtual, and have more kids at storytime. At my own library, we’ve seen double-digit growth almost every year for over 20 years running.

Until last year. The drop wasn’t big—about .7%. But from such little shifts come major seismic realignments.

In our attempt to make sense of this apparent dropoff, we looked at many statistics. The first one that made sense was this: We hadn’t bought as many items. In fact, we’d bought about about 4% fewer. Buy fewer books, get less use. Clear enough. The fact that it hadn’t been a 4% drop speaks to our sharp focus on purchasing things that do circulate, and building a lot of expertise in the display of our holdings.

But that drop in purchases wasn’t a result of declining revenues, at least not last year. Our income is tied to property taxes, and they did fall in 2012 (a result of a general drop in assessed valuation following the collapse of the housing market). But last year, we’d spent at least as much money as the year before. It just didn’t go as far.

Below, see a chart we worked up in July for the current bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (ebook available from OverDrive):






Weeks Wait

Retail Price

Our Price

























Total cost to date: $3742.09, or $4,198.77 including audio CD and Playaway versions. For one title.

You see what’s going on here: a proliferation of formats combined with a spiking of costs. Together, they greatly impede our ability to meet public demand for a particular work; they erode the purchasing power of the public library.

And for those publishers reading this: “waiting time” equals “friction.” Okay? Your local library can’t instantly satisfy local demand, much less global demand, despite all the money we spend with you.

I’ve argued elsewhere that there are three factors that directly influence our ability to fulfill the library mission. Two of them are ownership (the ability to have physical possession of a file, the better to preserve and manage it), and integration (the ability to provide some polish and convenience to the user experience).

But the third factor is equally basic: cost. Right now, publishers and distributors (in this case, Random House and OverDrive) have driven up the price of an ebook so far that it really doesn’t make sense for libraries to buy it. People who read ebooks don’t stop reading on paper; if anything, they seem to read more in all formats. People who listen to audiobooks, however, don’t seem to shift platforms as easily. But clearly, the cost for these formats is as bad or worse than ebooks.

I should also say that a random comparison of prices between OverDrive and 3M revealed 3M as about 16%&ndash17% more expensive than OverDrive, on average. I’m not just targeting one publisher or distributor here.

Considering the difference between the cost of paper and digital formats, I really did consider buying paper only. For now, that’s just prudent: I can reduce the waiting list faster by purchasing multiple copies at discount.

But you know what’s coming next: the book that is published e-only, or that comes out as an ebook first, and on paper two months later. This is an attempt—successful, so far—to lock us out of the market by outright denial on the one hand, or through ballooning costs on the other.

So besides complaining about it, what can libraries do? First, I think we need to keep putting these cost comparisons out there, not only for librarians, but for the public.

Second, I think we have to learn how to manage our own e-content. Cutting out the middle man may be essential to our economic survival. These prices will accelerate that quest.

Third, I think we should work even harder to reward with our attention those publishers and distributors who offer more favorable terms. And I’m not just talking “buying it again at 26 checkouts doesn’t seem so bad now!” “Less bad” isn’t “good.” Let’;s spend our money where we can make it count, and where we can demonstrate that there is in fact an economic value for libraries. When a consumer can buy something for $9.99, and we pay $47.85, that’s a tough case to make.