Salt Lake City Public Library says ebooks cost more

The Salt Lake City Public Library system offers over 5,200 ebooks to its members.  The digital collection is incredibly popular and appears to be growing in popularity each day.

The big surprise is that the ebooks are more expensive than print books according to library spokeswoman, Julianne Hancock, in an article in the Deseret News.

According to Hancock, the library pays $12k per year to OverDrive to provide the ebooks and then pays a per copy charge to be able to lend electronic books to library members.  The per copy charge is about 8 dollars more on average than a copy of the same physical book and in some cases it can be much higher than that.

You would think that digital copies of a book would cost less than the physical copy since there are no printing or shipping costs.  Also, you would think if a library carries a certain ebook they should be able to loan it out to as many people as they want at a time since there is no actual physical copy that has to be exchanged.  That is definitely not the case due to the way ebooks are licensed.

Book publishers are afraid that renting an ebook is just too easy.  Renting an ebook takes almost no effort at all and can be done from anywhere in the world.  To borrow a physical book, you have to travel to a library and pickup the book.  You then have to drop it off before someone else can borrow it.  These combined barriers to book rentals at libraries are called “friction” by the book publishers.  With ebooks, there is no friction so the publishers feel that if they let libraries loan out their ebooks then no one will ever want to purchase their ebooks.  Why pay for something that you can get for free just as easily?

And this is why ebooks cost more than physical books.  This is also why a library can only loan out so many copies of ebooks at a time.  The publishers are trying to create friction by implementing controls that are similar to physical books.  Meanwhile, libraries all over the country are getting nervous about the drastic change in business models as they transition to digital books.

Of course the ones that lose are the consumers.  As a library user, one would expect to be able to borrow pretty much any ebook for free from the comfort of home without a wait.  Until a pricing model is worked out between publishers and libraries, that scenario will be a fantasy.


  1. Faunn Hernandez says

    It is very difficult to borrow e-books, I didn’t know why until I read your article. Also I assumed e-books cost less, Thanks for the education.

  2. Dale Copps says

    Who in the world “would think if a library carries a certain ebook they should be able to rent it out to as many people as they want at a time”? This would be a gross violation of copyright. Those of us who are arguing for a sane and responsive system of eBook lending through public libraries would never advocate the lending of one purchased copy of a book to multiple users at the same time, whether that book is in digital format or not.

    And eBooks are not more expensive in order to create “friction.” They are more expensive because publishers don’t know what they are doing or how to handle eBooks. They are so frightened of losing a nickel in sales that they are leaving millions on the table in a hopeless effort to keep the market from taking advantage of the natural advantages of digital publishing.

    Amazon has boldly entered the fray, with a sane eBook lending model in its Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. That model threatens public libraries as much as publishers’ idiocy threatens their own continued existence.

    In the end, authors want readers and readers want eBooks. If publishers and libraries can’t get together to provide the parties with what they want, the continued existence of both is in peril. I address this issue extensively, including a proposal for the “pricing model” called for in this article.

  3. Mark says

    Why do you initially refer to Libraries “renting” out material – it really undermines ones belief that you know what you are writing about? Libraries “LEND” their items; the switch you make mid-post corrects this mistake, but the whole notion of first impressions has to be remembered.

    You include no mention of the cost of maintaining an eBook by publishers or vendors as you ponder the pricing of an eVersion versus print copies of the same title. The equipment and tech staff needed to ensure the availability of an eTitle to a customer (regardless of whether it be an individual or a Lending Institution) has to be acknowledged; I think linking costs to ‘friction’ as the solo explanation is overly simplistic at best.

    To help your readers understand the benefit to Libraries of offering an eCollection to their patrons, in spite of the extra charge the Library pays to acquire such titles, maybe you could follow up by providing them with some details of costs of replacement of the physical (paper) books due to theft and those of repairing books that are returned damaged.

    • Public Libraries says

      Renting or lending is a matter of semantics. Library patrons just pay to temporarily use products and services through indirect taxes instead of direct fees. Sure some people pay nothing while others that don’t use libraries pay a lot, but there is still the concept of “payment”. So saying whether or not libraries lend out their products and services or rent them is not a huge issue. I use both and am comfortable with that. I decided to change to lend as you suggested for this post though.

      The costs of maintaining an ebook are so small that it has minimal impact on the final price of the product. Ebooks are very small (currently) and secure storage is relatively inexpensive. The driving factor for the price of lending out ebooks is primarily publisher/author fear. They are concerned that if ebooks become extremely easy to borrow for free that no one will ever purchase one.

      There is definitely value for libraries in offering ebooks to their patrons. I believe this value is huge. But I also believe that the publishers and authors will ultimately have to determine if there is a business model that works for them and for libraries to be able to unlock this value.