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eBooks at the Library: Delving into the Labyrinth

Checking out eBooks at the library has come a long way since I bought my Nook Classic. Back then, most companies did not know how to make eBook lending from the local library work, and staff members at my local B&N had to pass out detailed instructions – that were at least a page long – about how to borrow library books on your Nook. Although I’m an early adopter who managed to read eBooks on a Palm and on an eBookwise, I never got library lending to work on my Nook. Not until I gave up and got a Kindle was I able to make the lending process go smoothly. “So that’s how it’s supposed to work!” Later, the EPUB lending process improved substantially. I  borrowed Best Day Ever  by Kaira Rouda in EPUB format and was able to read it in an app on my iPad through the Libby app, which is also available in other countries.

Formats make a difference to library users worldwide. In Canada and the UK, Kindle books cannot be borrowed from the library because the format is proprietary. Books can only be borrowed in EPUB and PDF formats. In the UK, the available lending options are Nook, Kobo, Android, and IoS. That may vary by country (and province or county.)

In my library system, the lending process has been improved in other ways, often as the library system moved to a new vendor. At first, the search feature needed to be set on fire. Unrelated results often came up, making it difficult to find what you wanted. It was like looking for Van Morrison in a record store and later realizing he was in the “V” section. Let’s say you’re looking for Alyssa Cole. Your search might bring up Alyssa Day, but not Alyssa Cole. Or it might bring up a couple of Alyssa Cole’s books, but not the ones you want. Now, not only can I find books by author or title more easily, but I can also recommend the books they don’t have yet. The categories still need to be tweaked — historical fiction, woman’s fiction, and mysteries and thrillers often end up in the “Romance” category. Okay, I can understand finding the DIK historical mystery, City of Secrets by Victoria Thompson, under Romance. But Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie? And Anna Karenina? What a strange concept of romance!

Quirks in the search feature aside, wait lists are the biggest drawback to borrowing eBooks from the library. Crazy Rich Asians is the top book that comes out when you check out the Romance section at my library, and although the library has 146 copies of the eBook available, none are available right now. You can place a hold, and if you time it well, you’re in luck. On the other hand, I remember checking the wait list for The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter after Kristen gave it a great review. Whoa. It would have taken a couple of months to get the book, so I caved in and bought the eBook instead. Although it was priced higher than I normally want to pay for an eBook, it was worth it.

So… What’s up with those wait lists? Why are they so long? Many people blame the publishers. For every step forward, libraries are forced to take two steps back. Most users know that they can wait for an eBook to drop in price, but this isn’t an option for libraries, which must buy eBooks at more than list price. Librarian and blogger Jennifer Anne (@kidsilkhaze) explained the issues in a thread on Twitter.

Jennifer Anne starts by stating “So here’s the thing–I am worried that publishing is killing libraries, and that will, in turn, kill publishing.” In a nutshell, eBooks are more expensive for libraries than you think. Although libraries usually get discounts on print books, eBooks are almost always priced extra high for libraries. For example, Penguin Random House charges about $55 per copy – and then requires the library to repurchase the title every twenty-four months. HarperCollins charges list price, but the items can be checked out only twenty-six times before they must be repurchased. Hachette charges about $80 to $90 per title, but the titles don’t have to be repurchased. Macmillan charges $60 a copy for an eBook and then requires repurchase after two years or fifty-two checkouts; because of lending periods, this often means the library only gets about thirty-five checkouts per title.

On top of that, some publishers (such as Tor) embargo libraries so that they can’t lend out the eBook until the book has been out for several months. But by the time the embargo period time has passed, the libraries will probably pass on the titles, meaning that the publisher loses out on the eBook purchase.

Although I had read that libraries have to pay higher amounts for eBooks, Jennifer Anne’s thread really brought it home. On the one hand, I understand that publishers are faced with a dilemma. Unlike paper copies, eBooks don’t get dirty or worn, and they can’t be lost. So the library won’t have to keep buying replacement copies of a popular eBook. On the other hand, some of these restrictions are so costly that publishers are pricing themselves out of the library market. Most libraries can’t afford to buy more than a few blockbuster titles. So library patrons get annoyed and stop looking for eBooks at their library, assuming that the library doesn’t care. Then library budgets get slashed (yet again) so that even fewer eBooks can be purchased. This hurts not just the libraries and their patrons, but the publishers as well – because they are pricing one of their biggest customers out of the market.

The books are often more likely to be available in paper at the library. Because of that, after learning about the high prices libraries must pay for eBooks, some readers have vowed to stop getting eBooks from their libraries. However, many readers struggle with small print, or simply can’t get to a library (because of distance or disability or time). So these pricing wars mean that many patrons can’t use the library to read the books they love.

On the other hand, for users, the library lending process is getting better. My library’s digital website went through lots of makeovers – and switched digital suppliers. Searching is much easier. Even if the book is not available for lending in eBook format from that library system, you can still find it – and recommend it for purchases. Let’s say you’re looking for Daphne du Maurier: Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship. My library has several Daphne du Maurier eBooks, but not that one. So all I have to do is search for the book, then scroll down to “Didn’t find what you’re looking for?” and click See All. If the book is available in eBook or audiobook format, it will appear. Then I can click it and “recommend” it for purchase. The library keeps track of my recommendations, making it easy to find out if they’ve bought any of the titles.

Lending is now even easier to navigate. Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader spotlighted a Chrome and Firefox extension called Library Extension (LibEx) that lets you “browse” your library’s eBook shelf directly from Amazon, as well as on Goodreads. It works with some of the most common eBook suppliers – OverDrive, Hoopla, and BiblioCommons. Also, the author of the extension keeps updating it, so future updates might include lending sites such as Scribd, or perhaps other suppliers such as 3M Cloud Library. I’ve tried it out, and you can even use it to find whether or not your library owns a book in print format as well.

Using this extension, and my Amazon wish list, I was able to find out that my library has several eBooks I’m really interested in.

Now if only someone could create an extension that gives me more time to read!

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