{Opinion} E-Book Price Hikes - Libraries = An Unfair Game

I love to buy books. Ebooks, paper books, whatever. I simply love to own books. It’s probably a disease of some sort.

Sure, I use my library, especially my library’s ebook collection (more on that in a minute), since it always nice to visit my library without the hassle of, you know, leaving the house. But, ultimately, I feel good about buying books, because I know that it supports the people who create the books I love—authors, yes, but also the editors and book designers and everyone else who’s involved in the creation and curation* of what’s on our shelves, virtual or physical. 

However, as much as I love buying books, I hate feeling manipulated. 

And with the combination of publishers—particularly Penguin—simultaneously raising their ebook prices while yanking their titles from libraries’ ebook collections, that’s exactly how I feel. 

IceBound by Julie RoweUnfair Game?

Let me tell you a little story about my recent attempt to read one of Penguin’s new releases, Patricia Briggs’ Fair Game

I’ve been hit or miss with the Alpha & Omega spinoff series of the Mercy Thompson series. I liked the first book just fine and was rather “meh” on the second. So, while the books in the main series are auto-buys for me, because they’re guaranteed good reads, I’m not as confident in the Alpha & Omega series. 

But, since there’s not going to be a new Mercy book until 2013 (sob!), I decided that I’d been missing the Mercyverse way too much and would revist this parallel series in the same world. Since it was a hardback release, I knew it would be a perfect Kindle book. (I have tendinitis in my right hand so hardbacks, are murder on my hands—I’d quit reading any new releases unless they were in paperback before my husband bought me my Kindle three years ago. Additionally, our house is super-tiny—around 800 square feet—so I can’t bring paper books that aren’t part of my “permanent collection” into the house.)

Logging onto Amazon, I discovered that the book was priced at $12.99. Given that this series is iffy for me, and that it was fewer than 300 pages, I balked at that price point. Momentarily forgetting that Penguin had abandoned libraries’ ebook collections, I logged onto Multnomah County Library’s website to put a hold on the ebook. 

Oh, right… Penguin doesn’t want libraries to lend ebooks

So, I sucked it up, and even though I hate hardbacks and find them challenging to read because of the aforementioned tendinitis situation, I put my name on the very lengthy list for one of the library’s copies of Fair Game—I was lucky number 126 (I checked recently and the count’s now north of 200). At that rate, I figured I’d be reading Anna and Charles’ latest adventures around when the next Mercy Thompson came out.

Here’s the thing: By simultaneously raising the ebook price significantly, releasing the book in pricey hardback form only and yanking their ebooks out of libraries, it felt like Penguin was trying to manipulate me, effectively painting me into a corner in which I had few choices as a consumer. 

I know some of you are rolling your eyes, thinking, 

Oh, cry me a river—another digital reader whining about ebook prices.

But, here’s the thing, ebooks and paper books are not the same thing. At all. 

When I buy a paper book, I can lend it, resell it and give it away. When I “buy” an ebook, I’m not really buying anything at all. I am effectively purchasing a license to view that book in whatever format my current ereader utilizes. I cannot transfer my rights in most cases (granted, some forward-thinking publishers do allow lending) and if I switch ereader platforms, I’m out of luck.** Furthermore, ebooks are often sold with the cover image missing and wonky formatting included, making the formats even less comparable.*** 

I appreciate imprints such as Avon (Harper Collins) who price their ebooks very competitively—usually around $7.99. I have the next Jeaniene Frost on preorder and I don’t even know anything about the plot, because for me an $8 purchase is a pretty low-risk endeavor. Their books are marginally available in ebook form through libraries (they cap lends at 26, which is ludicrous), but the lower price point makes purchases feel less risky and I’m less likely to look for those affordable titles at my library anyway. (Note: Simon & Schuster and Macmillan have never allowed libraries to purchase and lend ebooks.)

Icebound by Julie RoweYou know what? I didn’t like this book, but at Carina Press’ inexpensive price point, I didn’t mind taking a risk on an impulse buy after reading a review.Moreover, I enthusiastically applaud imprints such as Carina (Harlequin) who have gone the route of both DRM-free and price their books at a very low-risk rate, usually under $6. I have tried a number of their authors on a lark, a few have been hits (Hell yeah, Shannon Stacey!), and there have been a number of misses, but I never felt ripped off. (I have not seen their books in the library ebook collection, but that seems like a non-issue because their books are so wallet-friendly.)

But, I imagine some of you are still rolling your eyes, thinking, 

You’re whining about a $5 price difference! Get over it!

That $5 price different makes a huge difference when you read 150+ books per year. 

At that consumption rate, I feel personally invested in the book industry (and that’s a drop in the bucket for some readers—dedicated romance readers, for example, often read 300 books a year). 

So, when the price pushes too high for my comfort, I turn to my library (which is not “free,” incidentally—I help pay for those books with my hefty Multnomah County property taxes). I do not think it is unreasonable to expect that libraries have ebooks available—just like libraries have audio books available for patrons who prefer that format, they should have ebooks available for their patrons who read digitally. 

Sure, there are kinks that need to be worked out—theoretically ebooks can be circulated forever, while physical books have a lifespan (though, judging from the books at my library, librarians are wizards at keeping them in circulation long past their natural lifespan). But, ultimately, if publishers want to follow Penguin’s lead and go all in with high prices for what is effectively a rental license for ebook purchases, they have got to make them available to libraries. 

Attachments by Rainbow RowellThis was a great library ebook find—library patrons can’t check this one out in ebook form anymore.

Consumers are smarter than publishers think.

Check out the comments on the Dear Author review of the very excellent Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, another $12.99 Penguin title (it’s now dropped to $9.99, which points to the benefit of waiting on that pricy ebook). Reader after reader remarks that they simply cannot stomach that price point. 

Beyond those very savvy consumers, on a regular basis, my friends and family new to ereading (it seems as if everyone received an ereader this last holiday season) lament to me (yep, I’m “that person” in my circle) about the rapid increase in prices of ebooks—and are irked at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for “jacking up their book prices.” They’re noticing the price increases, despite that they aren’t privy to the intricacies of the agency model of ebook pricing that results in publisher-mandated prices being uniform across retailers. I suppose that benefits the publishers, because consumers don’t understand (right now) how ebook pricing works, but that doesn’t negate the reality that some readers question the prices and consider their purchases more carefully. 

It’s absurd for the large publishers to assume that ebook buyers will continue tolerating price increases for books for which they have extremely limited usage rights, while our access to titles via our beloved libraries are further restricted. 

I simply refuse to believe that it’s not possible to create a system that will fairly serve the needs of everyone—authors, publishers, retailers and readers.

While I don’t know what that system would be, I know that the adversarial, manipulative situation we’re experiencing is absolutely not the solution.

(Oh, and Fair Game? I borrowed it from a friend.)  

*I really do appreciate this work. While I think there are some fantastic self-published books out there (i.e., Angelfall), I don’t want to do the work of wading through what is essentially a slush pile to find them. I know not everyone feels that way, and I hope that self-publishing will grow in it professionalism over time, as it is a wonderful opportunity for some people.

**Yes, I know I can crack the DRM and make a backup and reformat my ebooks. I’m talking about complying with the terms of my license, not circumventing it. 

***I estimate that I have to add a cover image and/or fix significant formatting issues in approximately 30 percent of the ebooks I purchase. It’s fortunate that I know how to do this, as I assume most people would just suffer through that lousy reading experience. 

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