‘The e-book problem’ hits Seattle Public Library

The Seattle region loves to read. The city is one of just two UNESCO cities of literature in the country.

“We just have voracious readers in Seattle,” said Elena Gutierrez, collection services manager at Seattle Public Library.

In the past four years, reading in the city has also shifted away from print books and toward digital options, like e-books and e-audiobooks.

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Seattle Public Library is number eight in the world when it comes to digital checkouts from Overdrive, a global distributor of digital books and makers of the Libby app. King County Library System is third. Seattle is the only metro area that appears on the list twice.

Digital reading is convenient — no print book to drag around. It also makes stories and information more accessible for many with disabilities, including dyslexia and vision impairment.

But the increasing demand for digital books is causing problems for local libraries. Last month, SPL announced it was reducing the number of digital holds patrons can place from 25 down to 10.

The reason: Digital books are extremely expensive for libraries, even though they’re generally cheaper than print books for an individual consumer.

“I’ve seen three to 10 times as much charged to a library for the same exact material,” said Kyle Courtney, the director of copyright information policy at Harvard Library. Courtney is also a founder of the eBook Study Group, a nonprofit working to make digital materials more affordable for libraries across the country.

I’ve seen three to 10 times as much charged to a library for the same exact material.
Kyle Courtney, copyright lawyer at harvard library and founder of the ebook study group

Gutierrez pointed to Brittney Spears’ 2023 memoir “The Woman In Me” as a prime example of the budget challenges that e-books pose. SPL paid the book’s publisher $17.81 for each physical copy it bought, a few dollars cheaper than what an individual would pay in a bookstore.

Electronic copies were a totally different story. The e-book and e-audiobook are about $17 for a consumer, but the library paid more than three times that price: $64.99 for an e-book and $59.99 for a digital audiobook.

Combine the increasing demand for digital books and the higher prices, and things add up quickly.

“In total, the library’s physical copies at one point were $2,500 that we had invested,” Gutierrez said. “But the digital copies cost us $35,000.”

That price tag is only the start of the story. Publishers largely don’t allow libraries to own digital books outright — they have to license them for a set period of time or a set number of checkouts.

In the case of “The Woman In Me,” each copy is only rented to the library for two years, then they have to pay again to keep using it.

“It’s like throwing money directly out a window,” Courtney said.

It’s a challenge that library systems across the country are struggling with, from small local organizations to the nation’s biggest research institutions.

“My fear is that e-book licenses as they currently are turn libraries into Netflix and Hulu. We don’t own anything. We have to continually pay for it and can go away at a moment’s notice,” Courtney said. “That idea of, ‘last day to see this series,’ right? You see that on Netflix and Hulu all the time. It’s literally what’s happening to our collections libraries. They’re disappearing unless we pay more.”

Seattle Public Library buys new digital books for one of two reasons: First, when a new book is published. And second, when there’s high demand for a given title. One of the library’s goals is to keep hold waits down.

As of publishing, the e-book title with the longest hold line was “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride. SPL has licenses for 300 copies, but more than 2,000 patrons had the book on hold. It would take someone joining the list roughly three months to get a copy.

By reducing the number of holds each patron can place, the library is essentially asking readers to be more choosy about which books to get in line for. Gutierrez said it’s already having an impact on their budget.

“We have reduced the costs for holds by a significant amount,” she said. That means the library can put that money toward other titles.

“We want depth and breadth to the collection. We want to be able to offer a variety of titles and not just feed the best sellers,” Gutierrez said. “So, this allows us to have funds redistributed also to acquire new content rather than have hundreds of copies of fewer titles.”

While adjusting policies may offer short-term relief, Courtney said the larger issue of e-book licensing isn’t likely to change without intervention.

He’s working with states across the country to introduce legislation that would use existing consumer protection and contract laws to bring costs down. It would work in a similar way to net neutrality laws that prevent internet service providers from giving certain online activities or sites preferential treatment.

“We’re saying, ‘Dear publishers, you want to do business in this state? Whatever state adopts this particular law? Well, we have millions and millions of dollars, so the contract needs to be reflective of the library mission and include these terms or forbid these terms,’” Courtney said.

The Washington Library Association has drafted a bill in partnership with the eBook Study Group and is hoping to introduce it during next year’s legislative session. A spokesperson for the group said they’ve started having preliminary discussions with state lawmakers on the issue.

In the meantime, local libraries offer lists of books that are available to check out with no wait through the e-book and audiobook app Libby. And many local libraries, including Seattle Public Library and the King County Library System, offer cross-system access for Washington residents looking for their next read.

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‘The e-book problem’ hits Seattle Public Library:

The Seattle region loves to read. The city is one of just two UNESCO cities of lit…