eBook Price Gouging & The Preference For Print

Many academic libraries are transitioning from traditional print to eBooks because we assume that our patrons prefer to access material electronically. We are dealing with the Google generation after all.

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article that showcased the perils of relying on eBooks. "In mid-May, the Boston Library Consortium, which represents 17 academic libraries in New England, received an abrupt and unsettling phone call from ebrary, an e-book library owned by the aggregator ProQuest. A company representative said 11 academic publishers, including major players like Taylor & Francis and Oxford University Press, would be raising the cost of short-term e-book loans effective June 1. In some cases the increase would be as much as 300 percent."

The publishers said that the pricing model was in beta, and it was deemed to be unsustainable. "At issue is a short-term loan model for e-book purchasing that has been tested over the past two years. It allows libraries to offer large catalogs but pay for only those books that are actually used—and not to pay full price until books have been used several times." We call this patron-driven acquisitions.

How does it work? "Each time a client checks out one of the e-books in these 'demand-driven acquisition pools,' the libraries pay a portion of the title’s list price—from 10 to 80 percent, depending on the length of the loan and the publisher’s rate. After a certain number of loans—publishers say the number can be as low as two, theoretically, or high as 25—the library automatically buys the title at full price."

Generally, even though a library eventually pays the full price after a certain number of checkouts, the library never actually owns the title like a print book. The library merely licenses the title, so after the agreed upon number of checkouts is up, the library has to purchase the title again for future checkouts.

Another issue is the "'restrictive licensing agreements' that prevent e-books from being shared among libraries the way hard copies pass through Interlibrary Loan." This has been called an 'existential threat' to the 'ecosystem of sharing.'" And I would add preserving/archiving, as well.

And although we suspect that eBooks will continue to rise in popularity, the Wall Street Journal noted that "[o]f the people in the U.S. who use the Internet, 46% say they still only read books that are printed, according to data from Harris Interactive that was charted by Statista. Another 16% say they read more printed books than e-books." And The Chronicle of Higher Education noted anecdotal evidence that scholars still prefer print books, too.

If publishers are not willing to play nice with libraries regarding eBooks, maybe libraries should continue to purchase the print version for now. Print allows libraries to buy a copy and lend it into perpetuity without restriction because the library owns the print book versus merely licensing an eBook.

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