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E-Books Strain Relations Between Libraries, Publishing Houses


E-books have strained the relations between libraries and the major publishing houses. Libraries say they're being cut out of the market because publishers are afraid they could lose money selling e-books to libraries. After much negotiation, the publishers are experimenting with new ways of doing business. But some libraries are already looking to bypass the high prices and restrictions that publishers place on e-books.

As part of our series on libraries, NPR's Lynn Neary has this report on the differences that still separate these two, book-loving institutions.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Library patrons in Kansas were getting frustrated that they often could not check out e-book versions of popular books. So the State Library of Kansas created a Facebook page to explain which books they cannot buy at all, and which ones are just too expensive to buy.

JO BUDLER: Well, we really did the Facebook page to let Kansans know why we were not providing the best-sellers to them. A lot of people were critical of us for not buying the titles that they wanted.

NEARY: Jo Budler is the state librarian of Kansas. She was also named Librarian of the Year by Library Journal, for actions she's taken to help Kansas libraries get more access to e-books while saving the state money in the process.

All of the major publishing companies have different policies regarding the sale of e-books to libraries. Among the things that vary from one publishing house to another are how many of their titles are available as e-books, and which libraries have access to them. Budler says the price of an e-book can also vary, and some are very expensive indeed.

BUDLER: The cost to you and I might be $10 for a book, and it might be 85 for a library, for that same title.

NEARY: But even after paying hefty sums of money, Budler says, libraries don't really own the e-books.

BUDLER: We have some publishers who say, you could buy a book, but it only belongs to you for a year. So basically, what they're doing is leasing it for a year. And then there are other ones who say, you can have a title but after 26 checkouts, it's gone. So you're really, again, leasing it; you're not buying it.

NEARY: Publishers, of course, see things differently. Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, says publishers have to rethink their relationship with libraries because of digital publishing. To begin with, she says, e-books never wear out so libraries may not feel the need to buy new copies of a title.

CAROLYN REIDY: It also makes it very easy for them to share their books with other libraries within their own system, or even around the country. And do we really want to have one, huge database available across the whole country - of all of our books - that consumers can read for free? You know, one of the questions we asked at one of our early meetings was, why would anyone ever buy another book when they could get every book for free?

NEARY: In April, Simon & Schuster began a one-year pilot program with three public libraries in New York City. The publisher is making its entire catalog available to those libraries. Any new book can be checked out as soon as it's published. An e-book will be good for a year, and the library has unlimited checkouts to one patron at a time. What really makes this work for the publisher - library patrons have an option to buy the book.

REIDY: We have a very popular book - say, last year, you know, the Steve Jobs book; they sometimes had a hundred people in line, waiting to read it. So that, to us, seemed to be an ideal opportunity, that some portion of those people would be happy to buy it. But it was a win-win because the library also got some of the income from that purchase. So it was a way for people to support their libraries, actually, by buying through the library portal.

NEARY: Reidy says that once they study the results of their pilot program, it could be rolled out to other libraries around the country. Jamie LeRue, head of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, isn't holding his breath. He's already found a way around the big publishers.

JAMIE LERUE: At this moment in history, with this explosion of self-publishing and independent publishing, suddenly the big five aren't the only game in town.

NEARY: Between publishers and libraries, says LeRue, there is a middleman - the distributor. They have the digital platform which makes it possible to deliver e-books to patrons. In return, they get a share of the sale of a book, which is one reason e-books can be so expensive for libraries.

LeRue started looking for a way for libraries to deliver e-books themselves. Turns out there was a simple, low-cost software solution: the Adobe content server.

LERUE: And that gives you the ability to allow people to read it in the Cloud, or to check it out to a digital device; to restrict the loan to one person at a time, and control how long it's checked out for. So we bought it.

NEARY: With the platform in place, Douglas County Libraries turned to independent publishers as well as self-published authors and services like Smashwords, to get more content. They still buy from the major publishing houses, when they can. But they also deal with more than 900 small publishing companies and have 40,000 titles in their e-book collection. And, LeRue says, they also give library patrons the option to buy the e-book. And they're happy to help them discover lesser-known books and authors.

LERUE: Of course, they come in because they have heard about the best-selling books, the popular books. They ask for those; and we say, well, you know what? That costs $84, so we don't have a whole bunch of those. But what kinds of books do you like to read? And they say, well, I'm a romance reader. I say OK, you know what? We have lots of available romance books that are quite good.

NEARY: Other library systems have been paying attention to what is happening in Colorado. And a few have adapted what's now being called the Douglas County Model. One of them is the Kansas State Library System, which will be sharing a platform and content with a collective of libraries in California. Kansas State librarian Jo Budler says the big publishing companies could get left behind.

BUDLER: Are they shooting themselves in the foot? It's my greatest fear for them. But I also think that our readers, they're going to find things to read. And if it's not the best-sellers, they may turn somebody into a best-seller because the best-seller wasn't available at the library.

NEARY: And one other thing that publishers might sit up and take notice of, says Jamie LeRue: With a digital platform in place, libraries can not only distribute e-books: they can publish them.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.


WERTHEIMER: As our series on public libraries continues, we'll go to the New York City. After Hurricane Sandy, librarians helped a lot of people. They offered electrical outlets for recharging phones, and even helped people register for aid. Turns out, that kind of thing happens all over the country after disasters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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