Ebooks are the new Prius

July 31, 2012

James LaRue’s post yesterday detailed the costs of ebook lending. In short, when the ebook costs about five times as much as print, you end up spending a lot of money for not a lot of access. But, if you can believe it, I don’t think LaRue went far enough in his statements about the worrisome cost of ebooks. Let’s take another look at the numbers.

Douglas County Libraries (DCL) purchased 149 copies of the print version for $9.41 apiece. That means $1,402.09 was spent on print copies to meet the current circs+holds demand of 1,497, resulting in a per loan cost of 94 cents for print.

DCL purchased 20 copies of the ebook version at a cost of $47.85 each. So $957 on ebooks to meet the circs+holds demand of 479 or a per loan cost of $2 for digital.

So ebooks are twice as expensive? Not really. It gets worse.

DCL purchased 149 copies of the print and ended up with 1,497 requests, or 10.5 requests per item on the print side. On the digital side, DCL bought 20 copies for 479 eventual requests, resulting in 23.95 requests per item. That means, as LaRue noted, much longer wait times.

If DCL wanted to bring ebook holdings to the same 10 requests/item level as print, it would need an additional 27 copies of the ebook. That would bring the total ebook expenditure to an astounding $2,248.95 and raise the cost/loan to an unsustainable $4.70 per circulation.

All this fancy (and hopefully not too fake) math does is show that if you want to buy comparable levels of access in print and digital, then the cost of ebooks is going to have you seeing red. And bleeding red in your budget. Right now, as LaRue pointed out, libraries’ best hope is Random House, HarperCollins, where you are paying the list price for 26 loans of an ebook. In this case, the nearly 500% ebook markup by Random House HarperCollinsmakes digital access untenable.

Let me put this a different way. One that doesn’t involve the emotions of books and libraries.

Buying ebooks for your library is like buying a Prius. It makes no economic sense.

If you think you are buying a Prius (or really almost any other hybrid) to save money on gas, you are deluding yourself. Sure, the hybrid is more efficient and uses less gas, but you won’t make back the upfront cost of going hybrid for hundreds of thousands of miles. And don’t think that you went hybrid to save the environment either; those batteries involve rather a lot of heavy metals and other toxic nasties.

In the end, people buy hybrids to help advance change in the world of car “publishing” (too subtle?). People see that hybrid and electric vehicles are the way forward, and some are willing to pay the higher costs of getting in early on a disruptive technology. And yet the tipping point is almost here: Both Toyota and Honda now have hybrid compact cars for around $18,000. At that price, you can save money in the relatively short term.

The question is, when will the tipping point for ebooks in libraries come? Because right now, if you are buying ebooks for your library from one of the Big Six publishers, it makes no economic sense. And yet, we know this is where things are going.

Just remember to always buckle up before you head down the road.