Check This Out: An e-content primer for the bewildered

E-books and audio books cost the library more than print books. Is this fair?

By Anne DeGrace

An ebook reader, an audiobook listener, and a print book-lover walked into a library. If that sounds like the beginning of a joke to you, you’re not far off. The next part goes like this:

The ebook reader asked if the library could buy a second copy of the novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx. “I feel like I’ve been on the hold list forever.”

The audiobook listener overheard. “At least you’ll get to read it eventually. I listen to my books, and I’ve been desperately wanting to hear David Chariandy’s novel Brother — but it’s not even there. Why not? It won three major awards and it’s longlisted for Canada Reads.”

The print book-lover set a copy of both books on the counter. “I’d like to check these out, please,” she said. “January is such a great time for reading.”

The punchline, unfortunately, isn’t all that funny. That’s why the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC), an organization whose mandate is to strengthen Canadian libraries for the benefit of readers, has launched a campaign to raise awareness about issues of access to digital content.

The campaign, which runs Jan. 14 to 25, is aimed at two main goals: access to audiobooks, especially Canadian titles, and fair pricing for ebooks. Here’s the problem:

The library doesn’t own ebooks outright. We purchase a license to lend the books through the subscription service Overdrive, a lending platform used by libraries across North America. The Nelson library can purchase a license for an additional copy of Barkskins, but it’s really expensive. While a print copy is $47, a digital version is $156. That price disparity can put titles out of reach of library budgets.

“But it never wears out, right?” said the ebook reader. “That’s got to be an advantage.”

Actually, no. Barkskins is published by Simon & Schuster, and they say how long a library can circulate it. Other publishers dictate the number of circulations an ebook can have, modeled on their estimate of how many times a physical book goes out before it becomes worn out; in the case of HarperCollins, that’s 26 times — about half what a physical book can withstand if it’s handled nicely.

As for Brother, the library can’t purchase a copy as an audiobook at all because the publisher, Penguin Random House, sold the rights to Audible, a U.S. company — a licensing decision that makes this Canadian title unavailable to all Canadian libraries. This is the case for many popular books, such as Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben and Educated by Tara Westover.

“Really?” said the audiobook listener. “That doesn’t sound fair.”

It doesn’t—especially when the library can buy extra physical copies of either of these books at a reasonable price any time there’s extra demand, such as when a book becomes a CBC Canada Reads choice. But shouldn’t we be able to access books in whatever way we choose?

Setting the standard for these decisions, with many smaller publishers following, are the “Big Five” publishers: the three mentioned above are joined by Hachette and Macmillan. If they change their practices to make books fairly priced and accessible, the industry will change. That’s who the CULC wants the ear of, and they want readers to help — because after all, it’s readers who books are for.

If you pop into the library in the next week you’ll see a display containing the key points of these issues along with some of the titles you can’t access in the format you might choose. If you follow us on Facebook, you’ve already started to see some of these points in your daily newsfeed. And if you want to know more — and weigh in — go to econtentforlibraries.org.

Anne DeGrace is the Adult Service Coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For library information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.

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