Frustrated at the lack of many e-books at the Gig Harbor Library? Branch manager Robin Clausen agrees with you.
“Libraries want to be at the forefront of providing what people want,” Clausen said. “And we have as good a collection as we can buy right now.”
She’s referring to the unusual situation that libraries around the country are facing: they’d like to purchase more e-books, but the six major publishing houses have put major restrictions on libraries’ ability to do so.
The Pierce County Library System has been buying e-books for public use since 2007, But the publishing houses Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster refused to sell their new titles to libraries, said the library system’s community relations director Mary Getchell.
“It’s been a problem that’s really mounted to frustration,” Getchell said. “Here we are willing to buy, and they are not willing to sell.”
Two other major publishers, Harper-Collins and Random House, also limit libraries’ access to e-books. Harper-Collins only allows 26 checkouts of their e-book titles, while Random House charges libraries much higher prices for e-books than their titles’ market value. Getchell said that a Random House-published e-book that costs $11 on Amazon.com might cost Pierce County anywhere from $50 to $90.
It’s unclear exactly why these publishers aren’t allowing libraries to purchase e-books, according to Getchell. “We don’t have a clear answer,” she said.
None of the six major publishing houses have responded to requests for comment.
As e-readers and tablets become more popular, more library users prefer to check books out electronically. Clausen said many people have complained to the staff of the Gig Harbor Library about the lack of some prominent titles on e-book.
“I don’t think customers realize why we can’t offer more,” she said.
To that end, the library is trying to increase awareness of its e-book dilemma. Gig Harbor Library has a shelf labeled “Authors Unavailable to Libraries in eBooks” that holds many of the books publishers only offer libraries in their print version, including titles from popular authors such as Stephen King, James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark. A large percentage of new books and bestsellers, Getchell said, aren’t available for the library system to offer on e-book.
"We're very judicious because of how we buy e-books now," Getchell said. The library system has a $3 million budget shortfall going into 2013, and plans to reduce its spending on new books and materials by as much as 25 percent.
While much of this reduction will be based on usage, the e-books budget could be cut by almost half. Getchell said that while the library system had allocated more funding for e-books to keep up with growing demand, they're unable to allocate much of that money due to publisher restrictions, and as a result will have to cut back.
Libraries around Pierce County have also begun to give patrons postcards to send to publishing houses to let them know of their frustration with the lack of e-book access. Postcards are available at local library help desks, and email versions are online at the Pierce County Library System’s website.
"We need to get this information out," Clausen said. She said there's been some interest among Gig Harbor Library users about sending postcards and letting the publishers know they're frustrated, but many people remain unaware of the problem.
And she said that she believes e-book restrictions are harming the fundamental purpose of libraries.
"This is a down economy," Clausen said, "and the library is the great equalizer."