Thousands of Waco-area library patrons enjoy the convenience of e-books and e-audiobooks they can download on their tablets, computers and phones, but new pricing and use limitations by their publishers are worrying librarians.

While readers find convenience in access and portability, libraries pay for that in higher costs and increased record keeping. They are joining forces in consortia to expand access to titles and keep costs manageable, but major book publishers are shrinking the time frames that libraries can use their electronic materials without buying new copies.

“It’s going to affect us in certain areas,” Waco-McLennan County Library Director Essy Day said. “The business model for e-books and e-audiobooks is horrible, in my opinion.”

Within the last few months, Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster, two of the five major book publishing companies, joined another of the major publishers, Penguin Random House, in changing libraries’ perpetual licenses for e-materials to two-year licenses.

Rather than have permanent access to an e-title, as they do with print books and magazines after buying a copy, libraries would have to regularly buy a new copy — effectively shifting from a purchasing model to something resembling a licensing or subscription model.

Several publishers already put check-out limits on their e-books. After users have checked out an e-book title a certain number of times, often 26 times, roughly the lifespan of an average print title before replacement, libraries must buy new copies.

Publishers also limit e-book use to one patron at a time per copy, which requires libraries to buy multiple copies to handle interest in a popular title, just as they would for print, or have patrons endure long waits before getting access.

Macmillan Publishers rattled some public librarians last summer by testing an embargo with its Tor science fiction imprint. Libraries could not buy a new Tor title in e-book format for four months after release to maximize sales to individual consumers.

Because use limitations can differ from publisher to publisher, some libraries find keeping up with patrons’ use of specific e-books and e-audiobooks a bookkeeping headache and a strain on staff time, Day said.

The Waco-McLennan County Library owns 6,171 electronic items including e-books and e-audiobooks and spent some $47,000 of its $400,000 materials budget in 2018 to buy new and replacement titles.

Because of their heavy use by patrons, library e-books cost more than their print counterparts and even consumer e-books. Where an average print book might cost a library about $15, the e-book version for library use can run anywhere from $65 to $105, Day said.

Reader demand for e-books, however, is there. In the fiscal year 2017-18, Waco library patrons checked out 33,385 electronic items, and circulation of e-materials over the last three years has increased 143%. Print collection circulation has been up, too, with an annual increase of 13% at a time when many libraries report declining print circulation.

Patron interest in e-books also is high at Hewitt Library, which sees some 12,000 to 15,000 e-book and e-audiobook checkouts each month, director Waynette Ditto said. Like the Waco-McLennan County Library, Hewitt Library sees many of the same challenges with e-materials.

“It’s a complex issue, and each library is different,” Ditto said. “Libraries across the United States are taking a hard look at what they’re going to do. It’s not bad news yet.”

The Hewitt Library uses digital provider OverDrive to handle title acquisition, access and patron platform use for an affordable price. Waco-McLennan County Library, however, dropped OverDrive as an e-materials resource several years ago for a more streamlined experience with CloudLibrary and Recorded Books through the North Texas Libraries on the Go consortium.

In sharing access to member libraries’ e-books, e-magazines and e-audiobooks, the consortium has provided Waco library patrons with access to some 140,000 items at the cost of a $1,000 annual fee, Day said.

Hewitt Library led efforts to create the Central Texas Digital Consortium, which serves smaller libraries, and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission is rolling out an E-Read Texas service next month that will help libraries in communities smaller than 10,000 people provide e-readers and access to e-books for their patrons, Ditto said.

On a national level, the Digital Public Library of America works to expand e-book titles available to the public. The American Library Association also is alerting members about the need to educate the public and Congress about the risk that new e-material pricing models could pose to public access and continued use of materials.

“Libraries do a lot of good for publishers, and (publishers) forget that,” Day said.

For the time being, public libraries will continue to provide both print and e-materials for their reading patrons.

“There’s something about holding a book in your hand,” Ditto said. “You can kind of snuggle up with a book. You can’t necessarily do that with a tablet. But we’ll deliver both and we’re figuring out how to do it.”

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