Decision hurts library access to e-books

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By Rou Weng
Entirely East Lansing staff writer

Penguin Group, one of the largest book publishers, announced Feb. 9 that it has terminated its relationship with OverDrive, the primary distributor of e-books to public libraries. It means that Penguin will no longer make new e-books or audiobooks available to libraries.

Big issue for East Lansing Public Library

OverDrive is the only supplier of e-books to the East Lansing Public Library. Penguin’s move means that library staff can no longer purchase e-books from OverDrive. For now, Random House is the only big-six publisher to allow libraries unrestricted access to all of its e-books.

There are 4,200 e-book titles and 105,000 titles for print books in the library. Fifteen to 20 percent of e-books are published by Penguin. “People check out e-books every day, and around 1,000 e-book titles are checked out every month,” said Lauren Douglass, head of technology services.

As e-book borrowing from public libraries has climbed quickly in recent years, publishers have feared that access to e-books in libraries will hurt sales of e-books and print copies. OverDrive reported a 133 percent increase in libraries’ digital checkouts in 2011.

“We understand that publishers are worried about piracy and the self-publishing model of Amazon,” said Douglass. “But restricting access to libraries? Is that really the answer?”

“Library patrons in our community have to wait longer for Penguin titles,” Douglass said. “Our library has participated in the American Library Association to discuss the issue, and we can also purchase more physical copies to meet the needs,” she added.

“We hope Penguin decides to partner with another company to provide e-books to libraries, but even if that happens it means that more library dollars will have to go toward setting up a relationship with yet another e-book vendor.” Douglass said the library may find other e-book distributors in the future, but in the short run, it will not end the relationship with OverDrive.

Different situation with Michigan State University libraries

Steve W. Sowards, associate director for collections in the Michigan State University Libraries, said there is no immediate effect on the MSU library. “We don’t use OverDrive, and we don’t buy that many e-books from Penguin,” Sowards explained.

The university library uses several vendors, such as Elsevier, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell. It also used a company called ebrary, an aggregator through which the library can buy e-books from many publishers.

“Most of OverDrive’s library clients are public libraries. That’s partly because the titles that OverDrive sells are mainly novels, and they are mostly the things that public libraries would circulate,” said Sowards. “But academic books, you can’t get them through OverDrive.”

More than 70 percent of acquisition money is spent on digital copies and 30 percent on print copies in the library. “We want to buy electronic things because the campus, the community, like the convenience,” Sowards said.

However, Sowards said he hasn’t seen much increasing demand for e-books in the past few years. “I don’t think many people own the reading devices such as Nook, Kindle and iPad, and that’s one reason,” Sowards explained. “You don’t want a cellphone with the size of an iPad, and you don’t want a reading device with the size of a cellphone,” he joked.

“The other reason is probably that not that many books are available yet for downloading,” he added. “The academic books people want for their classes don’t often have digital versions, and novels, cookbooks, maybe biographies are usually available”.

“Librarians don’t like Penguin’s decision,” Sowards said, “My worry is that we have a precedent in place that publishers refuse to work with libraries, and if OverDrive expanded and began to sell academic books, the same rule could be applied to other agents.”

“I don’t think that will happen immediately,” said Sowards, “But, in general, there is a very fierce battle going on between authors, publishers, distributors and libraries”.

E-book distributor

Ana Bullard, senior director of content development for ebrary, a leading e-book distributor to academic libraries and researchers, said that the company hoped that Penguin could offer some alternatives for consideration, not just cutting everyone off. “I understand their concerns about some of the business models, so we’re working with them to resolve the issue,” she said.

“We mostly sell to academic libraries, so it’s a little bit different from public libraries,” Bullard said. So far, ebrary has an older contract with Penguin, however, the publisher stopped sending new titles. “I would hope Penguin and other publishers would reconsider their decision to not work with library distributors because readers want to be able to read e-books,” she said.