An e-book workshop at the Anoka County Library.

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E-books are not so easy to find at your nearby library

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE
  • Star Tribune
  • May 26, 2012 - 7:23 AM

Wondering why your library doesn't have an e-book version of the latest bestseller? It might be because the publisher refuses to sell one.

Libraries, publishers and software providers are still looking for footing in the new and unfolding world of e-books. Some publishers won't sell electronic books to libraries at all, and some will do it but charge three times the price of a printed book.

And even after they buy them, libraries may not be able to keep e-books forever: Some have learned that when a contract with their software company ends, the books they paid for could vanish.

"This is the first time for libraries where we have been unable to buy content that we want to buy, and if we do get to buy it, there is the possibility that we might not be able to retain it," said Carrie Russell at the American Library Association.

The hitch is that publishers -- who have authors to pay and printing costs to cover -- want readers to buy e-books, not borrow them from the library.

Although e-books are still a small percentage of library collections, officials in Minnesota report that demand has grown steadily since metro libraries started lending them in 2010. Some in the industry project that they'll make up a quarter of libraries' collections by mid-decade.

"People like instant gratification," said John Larson, digital library manager for the St. Paul Public Library. "They click some buttons and they don't even have to come to the library."

The Library Association this week issued a report on the digital divide, saying that as more and more content is delivered digitally, libraries must be able to keep up.

"We think we should have all the bestsellers," Russell said. "If you go to the public library, we should have the bestseller. But we don't because they won't sell them to us."

Responding to pressure from readers, Russell said some libraries have resorted to posting signs saying: "You can't get this book because Simon and Schuster doesn't sell to us. Here is their address. Write and complain."

Simon and Schuster explains: "Our e-books are currently not available in libraries because we haven't yet found a business model with which we are comfortable and that we feel properly addresses the long-term interests of our authors," said Adam Rothberg, spokesman for the company.

Bye-bye books?

Library contracts with OverDrive -- the largest e-book distributing service in the country and one used by all the library systems in the metro area -- are one source of the concern.

Libraries pay OverDrive an annual fee to provide software needed for downloading books and to present a list of e-books the library can buy, Russell said. "If a library decides to leave OverDrive, their contract may say they cannot retain the copies they initially purchased."

That could be a costly loss. The St. Paul Library, for example, has spent $140,343 on 8,047 copies of e-books from OverDrive since April 2011.

In an OverDrive case watched nationally, the State Library of Kansas succeeded in keeping its e-books even though it ended its contract with OverDrive.

In the summer of 2010, OverDrive proposed to increase the library's charges from $10,000 to $75,000 a year under a new contract that also would have stopped the library from keeping its e-books if the contract was terminated, said Jo Budler, Kansas state librarian.

"We spent more than $600,000 on content over about five years and we didn't want to leave our content behind," Budler said.

Kansas argued that the provision was not in its original 2005 contract with OverDrive. After ending their affiliation with OverDrive, the Kansas library secured its e-books, but it had to ask permission of each publisher to move content to a new service. "We wrote letters to 169 publishers, and we moved about 69 percent of our content," Budler said.

OverDrive declined to comment on the issue of libraries keeping their e-books after contracts expire.

The hiccups with e-books have made it harder for libraries to play their traditional role as an economic leveler, Budler said. "We are where you go when you want reading materials and you don't want to spend the money or can't afford to," she said. "We know that downloading books from your library is something that people want to do."

Competition coming

Looking for an alternative to OverDrive, Budler found the 3M Cloud Library, which allows libraries to keep the e-books they purchase. The company also says it has an easier approach to checking out and downloading files. The St. Paul Public Library and the Dakota County Libraries have contracted with 3M for both of these features.

The Hennepin County Library, which contracts now with OverDrive, is happy with its current service but is looking at options for more selection, said Gail Mueller Schultz, head of collection management services. "In the last six weeks, we met with all the major vendors on the market, just hearing about what their plans are, and we are watching what is happening."

3M decided to launch an e-book lending service for public libraries after years of selling detection systems, self check-out stations and alarm gates to libraries, said Tom Mercer, 3M marketing manager. "We expect that as much as a quarter of library circulation will end up being digital by 2015," he said.

The company heard from patrons that they were frustrated with the difficulties of using library e-services, Mercer said. "We wanted to have a system that is as easy to use as a Kindle or Nook," he said.

To do that, 3M allows library patrons to download an app on their iPhone or computer that lets them browse the library's e-books and check titles out, Mercer said. Books checked out on an iPhone or computer can then be transferred to an e-reader.

This approach eliminates a step in the OverDrive system that requires readers to create an ID and match it with their computer or reading device before they can open an e-book, Larson said.

"This was the step where most people got stuck," Larson said. "When we realized that all they would need is a library card with the Cloud Library, we were pretty excited about that. We didn't need to explain this crazy step in the middle."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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