What’s a Library Dollar Worth?

Peter Brantley -- September 9th, 2012

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.

8 thoughts on “What’s a Library Dollar Worth?

  1. Dan

    Some mark up isn’t objectionable in the public library market if it includes unlimited simultaneous users. That seems reasonable for titles that a library would order multiple of copies of in the print market. This post doesn’t address whether these high prices are for single use.

    1. LAPL Library User

      Dan, the way the system works is if the library purchases 1 copy, it can only be download and used for the set amount of time (7, 14, 21 days) by a single user. In effect, it functions exactly the same as a print book, without the worry of late fees or lost items as they return themselves, in a manner of speaking. To charge an exorbitant amount for the same functionality is insane.

  2. Richard Naylor

    Double kudos. Project these high prices to a significant part of an acquisition budget and it would mean a lot less books to circulate. One more reason to review and discover good books from cooperating publishers.

  3. Mary

    Kudos to Jamie and staff at Douglas County Libraries for once again leading the way! This report will be helpful to many libraries across the country. It is important for our patrons to know what’s going on and to contact the publishers to help solve this problem.

  4. David

    Wow, Two things stand out. First, there is an unjustifiable difference in the print and electronic price of books. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the extra DRM associated with library ebooks is more expensive than the production costs of printed books. Second, DOJ sues Apple for charging a flat rate $14.99 for ebooks as being anti-competitive but 3M & Overdrive have the same obnoxiously price for their books and the price is 3.2 to 5.4 TIMES more than the Apple store price. When it comes to the smell test it does not even come close to passing… something is very fishy

      1. James

        Jack is correct. You can’t put the blame on 3M or Overdrive in this case. Publishers are the ones setting the pricing. Personally, as the acquisitions person for the system where I work, I just refuse to buy them. I’ve found plenty of smaller publishers who put out good quality books at reasonable prices. Sure, we don’t have the new James Patterson or Janet Evanovich but I can live with that compared to publishers running scared and trying to prop up a dying business model based on dead trees.

        Publishers seem to forget that libraries serve a very useful purpose at exposing our large populations to authors and pricing their works beyond what we can or are willing to pay is only at their peril for their future profits.

        This report will be printed out and kept in stacks at our service desks starting tomorrow.

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