A Year of Ebook Price Comparisons: Has Anything Changed?

August 27, 2013

Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries has been publishing a monthly list of pricing for print and ebook bestsellers for the past year. We began in September 2012 when we realized that the availability and pricing of ebooks for libraries was out of whack with the market. Not only could we see a difference in the amount we spent for the same title in OverDrive and 3M, but also a huge discrepancy existed in what libraries and consumers would pay at retail.

Our patrons want the bestsellers and it is difficult to explain to them that we can’t get everything. Ebooks are either not available from publishers through our vendors or we are limited in how much we can offer when the prices are extremely elevated.

When we first launched the report, we envisioned three audiences for it:

  • Library decisions makers (board and senior staff). We called out that just as the Big Six prices soared, a new, far more cooperative and affordable stream of content was available to us: independent and self-published works. Those have now made an appearance on our bestseller lists, and we are snapping them up.
  • The public. A good use of the price comparison report is a handout or posting in public libraries. When a patron says, “Why don’t you have this popular ebook?” hand them the report. The numbers tell the story pretty clearly.
  • Publishers. The stratospheric and unfair prices set by some of the Big Six are, or should be, an embarrassment to them. They certainly highlight an opportunity for the up-and-comers in the publishing world.

What has changed over the past year?

We’ve seen a slight improvement in the availability of ebooks. The July 2013 report of the top 20 bestsellers at Amazon (PDF file) showed that 13 could be obtained by libraries. More of the titles were in 3M rather than OverDrive, but 3M was charging quite a bit more than OverDrive. For the most part, those two providers are in lock-step with the amount they charge per title.

What remains the same?

Pretty much everything else has stayed the same. The prices are high and the availability is up and down, depending on which bestseller list we publish. Of the ebooks libraries can buy, the average price was $63 in DCL’s latest report. The average consumer price was $11.50.

What will we do going forward?

DCL will continue to publish this monthly report and make it available on the evoke.cvlsites.org site. A complete list of the reports from the past year is at evoke.cvlsites.org/resources-guides-and-more/douglas-county-experiment-model/.

After asking some colleagues if there is anything we can do to make this tool more helpful, we decided to change the bestseller lists we use. Every other month we will publish the New York Times list and prices. In between, we will continue to publish comparisons using USA Today, Digital Book World, and other lists, including for children and teen titles.

ROCHELLE LOGAN is associate director of support services at Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries, where JAMES LARUE is director.