The Douglas County Libraries, under the leadership of James LaRue, this week initiated the publication of an ongoing pricing report for print and ebooks appearing on the New York Times weekly bestsellers lists for fiction and nonfiction. For libraries, the information is disheartening, although not surprising. For print books, library prices are generally on par (and often slightly cheaper) than consumer prices for the same book.
The digital picture, however, is entirely different. Great swaths of the spreadsheet are missing, illustrating the effect that publisher boycotts are having on the ability of libraries to provide access to their patrons. And, in those cases where ebooks are available, the report shows usurious markups, up to six times the consumer price for the same title. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, for example, is available for $9.99 at Amazon, but libraries have to fork out $47.85. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is $12.99 at Amazon, but an amazing $81.00 from both 3M and Overdrive.
In a narrative accompanying the report, Douglas County states that they were driven to release these numbers because: 1) The pricing comparison assists them in being good stewards of public funds; 2) it enables them to explain to patrons why so many ebooks are unavailable, either due to their absence from the market, or the astronomical pricing; and 3) that “presenting these numbers to the library and publishing worlds exposes a problem that is, or should be, a matter of public concern.”
“We get a lot of questions from our patrons about why we don’t have more of these bestselling titles in digital format,” LaRue writes. “From now on, we’ll hand them this report, and point out the obvious: some ebooks we can’t buy at all, and others are so much more expensive than print that it doesn’t make good business sense to invest in them.”
The report is scheduled to appear in the American Libraries publication, and at both the American Libraries e-Content blog and at the Evoke web site. Douglas County should be heartily applauded for compiling this report, and working with the American Library Association to make it widely available. It is the kind of data that libraries should have been exposing months ago, and it is fortunate that Colorado libraries have a policy against accepting non-disclosure agreements. I hope that more libraries can contribute to the conversation that should emerge from the release of this information.
Indeed, one of the most interesting things that leaps out in the report is the constancy of pricing between 3M and Overdrive in the library market. Library pricing is nearly always identical. In the shadow of agency pricing and a Federal judge’s approval of a settlement between the Department of Justice and some of the defendant publishers, this kind of pricing synergy raises more questions than it otherwise might.