At the Library: Publishers putting the e-squeeze on libraries

Lately, libraries have been taking a lot of hits from publishers when it comes to digital materials; we’re worried about how these changes will affect what we can offer our patrons, so we’d like to go over the nuts and bolts behind purchasing e-materials for the library collection.

This is a nuanced, multilayered issue, and while the news we have to share is pretty dire, our hope is that library patrons will continue to use and enjoy digital content as enthusiastically as ever, but do so with a better understanding of the challenges that public libraries are facing.

What exactly are those challenges?

The library marketplace for e-materials is complicated; terms are set by each publisher and the prices that libraries pay for digital materials are often much higher than what an individual would pay. Depending on the publisher, it’s not unusual for libraries to pay more than $40 for an e-book, and more than $60 for an audiobook.

It’s also worth noting that digital titles work like physical books or audiobooks, meaning only one person can check out each copy at a time.

In addition, when libraries purchase digital materials, we never really “own” those items like we would a physical book; instead, we are buying a license that allows us to provide access to the digital item.

When it comes to that access, publishers also determine whether the library’s access is perpetual (meaning, we pay once and always have the item in our digital collection), or metered, which means that access will expire after a certain length of time or number of checkouts — at which point the library would have to buy it again.

In the last year, four of the “Big 5” publishers — Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster — have moved from a mix of metered and perpetual access for e-books to a two-year metered access.

Simon & Schuster and Hachette have also metered their audiobooks, a new and distressing situation given the explosive popularity of audiobooks.

Even more distressingly, some publishers are moving toward an embargo model, which will make items available to libraries later than they are to individuals to purchase.

Blackstone, which primarily produces and distributes audiobooks, announced a 90-day embargo for libraries on select titles. Meanwhile, Macmillan recently announced that, beginning in November, for the first eight weeks after a new e-book is published, libraries will only be allowed to purchase a single copy of the e-book.

All of this is incredibly frustrating to libraries.

It’s our mission to provide equal access to information for everyone in our communities, yet the trends we’re seeing from publishers will directly impact our ability to meet the needs of our users.

Even worse for library patrons, these changes will likely translate to limited access to old, new and popular titles, longer waits for items, and fewer new authors to discover.

However, even with this unpleasant turn of events in the world of digital content, our hope is that you will continue to use our digital lending platforms, with the understanding that while your access to some of the e-materials you love will change, our commitment to our mission and our patrons never will.

• LeNee Gatton is collection development librarian and Julie Graham is assistant collection development librarian at Yakima Valley Libraries. Learn more at

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