2021 saw record numbers of people checking out ebooks from libraries, reports the Boston Globe — 500 million, according to figures from the ebook-lending platform OneDrive.
But some Massachusetts lawmakers want to require publishers to make sure all their digital products are available to libraries — and at “reasonable terms” — because currently libraries pay much more than consumers:
According to the American Library Association, libraries currently pay three to five times as much as consumers for ebooks and audiobooks. Thus, an ebook selling for $10 at retail could cost a library $50. In addition, the library can only buy the right to lend the book for a limited time — usually just two years — or for a limited number of loans — usually no more than 26. James Lonergan, director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, believes that publishers settled on 26 checkouts after calculating that this is the number of times a printed book can be checked out before it’s worn out and in need of replacement.
And that’s what happens to a digital book after 26 checkouts. The library must “replace” it by paying full price for the right to lend it out 26 more times.
Lonergan admits that this approach makes a certain sense. Traditional printed books can only be borrowed by one user at a time, but in theory a digital book could be loaned to thousands of patrons at once. Also, printed books wear out and must be repurchased, but digital books last indefinitely. “You can’t have a book be available forever at the same price point,” Lonergan said. “The publishers need to make money.” Lonergan thinks libraries and publishers can work out less expensive and more flexible terms. Publishers might charge a lower up-front cost for their digital products, for instance. Or they might expand the number of times libraries can lend out an ebook or audiobook. Lonergan believes that passing the Massachusetts law would give publishers further incentive to deal.
But the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which represents most of the nation’s leading publishers, is ready to fight. An emailed statement from AAP said the Massachusetts bill “raises significant constitutional and federal copyright law concerns and is an unjustified intrusion into a vibrant and thriving market for ebooks and audiobooks that benefits authors and publishers, booksellers, libraries, and the general public.”
The AAP has already sued in federal court to block enforcement of the Maryland law, arguing that only the federal government can regulate digital publishing practices.
The head of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners counters that if enough individual states pass ebook-pricing laws, “then Congress will step in and do something about this on the federal level.”