Fans of eBooks are faced with a two-tiered system, with libraries struggling to provide a wide enough range of the increasingly popular format for those who can’t afford to buy them, experts have warned.
The demand for digital book borrowing is increasing, with an 80% increase year-on-year, according to Connected Libraries, which represents public library services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But providing them comes at a significantly higher cost to libraries compared to physical books. While e-books account for 13 percent of all loans, they take up a quarter of the total budget.
This threatens to leave the industry struggling to stay relevant in the digital age.
Iain Moore, commercial director of Libraries Connected, said libraries want to remain accessible to everyone by having the same reading range in physical and digital formats. But tough licensing deals mean eBooks cost three to four times more to buy than print versions.
“With digital content, you don’t actually own it, so libraries can be licensed to lend it out, say, 24 times over two years. Whereas for physical books they would just buy it … Typically for a hardback book they would lend it about 100 times and for a paperback about 50 times. So it’s just that the cost per issue is so different.
Some eBooks can only be loaned one at a time, while some publishers don’t put eBooks on sale in libraries until months after initial release. “This means that sometimes people just can’t access books when they are in fashion and people want to read them,” Mr. Moore said.
“It’s kind of a two-tier system where you end up with people who can afford it – they’re just going to buy Kindle Unlimited subscriptions because it’s relatively cheap, and they have access to more books.” than the library would be. able to provide and sooner than libraries can buy.
“And then those who do not have the means or who do not have the skills to do so find themselves with the selection in the library which is a little smaller. There is therefore a risk of losing members of the library network.
The trend for e-books started before Covid-19 but “accelerated by two years” due to the pandemic, meaning people couldn’t visit libraries. Libraries Connected said the trend will continue due to the convenience of digital formats.
Isobel Hunter, Managing Director of Libraries Connected, added that accessibility issues affect one of the key roles of libraries: “to expand [people’s] read horizons, try things they would not have tried before ”.
“The whole role of a library is to present a really rich collection of reading to its readers, whatever their income, whatever their background, whatever their interests, it is in a way one of the missions main. So it is extremely frustrating for libraries not to be able to do this… in a forward looking, 21st century way.
Libraries Connected said it is engaging with publishers to develop licensing models that work for libraries, adding that a rich range of e-books is beneficial for “readers, libraries, authors and publishers.” .
“[Publishers have] need to monitor their results, but we are confident that somewhere in the middle is the perfect place where we can develop licenses that are suitable for everyone in this writing and reading ecosystem, ”Ms. Hunter said.
Stephen Lotinga, Managing Director of the Publishers Association, said: “Publishers want to connect the books they publish with as many readers as possible and they work closely with libraries to ensure access and availability. Licensing models exist to ensure that authors receive appropriate compensation for their work and that publishers can continue to invest in them.
“Public library spending has fallen dramatically over a number of years and, unfortunately, in many local libraries, investments in physical and digital lending stock have followed a similar trend. This inevitably means that despite the efforts of publishers to ensure that a wide variety of books are available, libraries may find it difficult to purchase all the titles and formats they want.
“We strongly believe that local authorities and government should invest in our public library service as part of ensuring that all readers have access to UK extraordinary authors and their work.”