E-books at libraries are a huge hit, leading to long waits, reader hacks and worried publishers
While some people are scrambling to collect log-ins for Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu and, now, Disney Plus, Sarah Jacobsson Purewal is working on a different kind of hustle. She signs up for any public library that will have her to find and reserve available e-books.
The Los Angeles-based freelance writer used to bo1rrow a friend's address to keep a New York Public Library account, and helped another out-of-state friend get a card for the Los Angeles Public Library.
"I'm a member of every library in California that allows me to be a member as a resident of the state," said Jacobsson Purewal, before rattling off a list of cities: Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego.
Over the past two decades, electronic books have taken off as a way to read on smartphones and e-readers like the Kindle. Digital books are sold online, typically for less than their physical counterparts. They've also found popularity in public library systems, where cardholders can download multiple e-books and audiobooks to their devices without leaving home. But, as with hardback library books, there can also be weeks-long waits and the inability to extend loan times for in-demand titles.
And while there are technically an infinite number of copies of digital files, e-books also work differently. When a library wants to buy a physical book, it pays the list price of about $12 to $14, or less if buying in bulk, plus for services like maintenance. An e-book, however, tends to be far more expensive because it's licensed from a publisher instead of purchased outright, and the higher price typically only covers a set number of years or reads.
That means Prince's recently released memoir "The Beautiful Ones" recently had a four-week wait for the e-book in San Francisco. Library-goers in Ohio's Cuyahoga County were waiting 13 weeks to download Jia Tolentino's book of essays, "Trick Mirror."
Library e-book waits, now often longer than for hard copies, have prompted some to take their memberships to a new extreme, collecting library cards or card numbers to enable them to find the rarest or most popular books, with the shortest wait.
Recently, Julian Hayashi-Marsano found "Bringing Columbia Home," a book about the multistate recovery effort to locate every piece of the space shuttle to return to Kennedy Space Center, with just a short wait before downloading it on his Kindle. The first-grade teacher is a card-holding member of the Queens, Brooklyn, and New York Public Library systems, the Cape Cod library sharing system (CLAMS), and another city's library where he borrowed a relative's address.
"E-books have been mostly very good as an experience. The downside is that wait times for titles are often quite long, because people will troll the catalogues and put everything on hold," Hayashi-Marsano said. "So it's only certain boutique interests of mine that get indulged regularly." Those include accident reports, National Transportation Safety Board investigations, organizational psychology, gardening, water ponds, applied economics, and nontraditional building methods like cob housing, rammed-earth and adobe.
A library typically pays between $40 and $60 to license a new e-book adult title, which it can then loan out to one patron at a time, mimicking how physical loans work. Each publisher offers different payment models. Under one, a library only has an e-book for two years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first. Another agreement covers 26 checkouts per book.
"We have dozens of publishers who are vying to have their books made available, sometimes at no cost, because they absolutely see . . . when libraries promote an author, their print sales spike, their e-book sales grow, and their audiobooks as well," said Steve Potash, chief executive of OverDrive, which works with more than 43,000 libraries to negotiate prices with publishers and provides tools to manage digital collections, including the library app Libby. Unlike with physical books, one library system will have an OverDrive system for all its individual branches, creating a single collection of titles they share.
Maintaining these collections is expensive. In 2017, libraries spent 27% of their collection budgets on electronic materials - which include e-books, databases and other digital content - versus 54.8% on print. That's up from 16.7% spent on electronic content five years before that, according to data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which handles federal funding for public libraries.
"It's a tremendous amount of work for our collection librarians to manage the e-book collection, as titles are expiring every day and they have to decide to repurchase or to let it go," said Jennifer Tormey, who manages technical services at the Des Moines Public Library.
Even with the higher prices, some publishers are balking at the popularity of library e-books, saying they may be hurting business.
Macmillan, one of the five-largest publishers in the United States, started enforcing a new embargo on e-book sales to public libraries this month. Libraries are only allowed to buy a single e-book version of its new titles until eight weeks after their release. Then they can buy more.
In a letter announcing the change, Macmillan CEO John Sargent said library loans were "cannibalizing sales." The company declined to comment further.
E-book sales have dropped every year since 2014, according to the market research firm NPD Group, although there's no evidence it's tied to library loans. Print book sales have continued to rise.
In response, some library systems are boycotting Macmillan e-books, and the American Library Association says it is considering legislative options.
"Why should a publisher dictate how public libraries get run?" said Lisa Rosenblum, the executive director of the King County library system in Washington state. "You can say, 'I'm not making any money; I want to charge you more.' That's an argument I can understand, but to refuse to sell to us?"
The embargo would create a massive backlog of holds for new titles and cost the library more, according to Rosenblum. Her library system, which is the largest digital lender in the country, already spent more than $2 million, or 16% of its collections budget, on e-books last year. It still invests far more in print, which made up 52% of its expenditures, or about $7 million.
Despite Macmillan's concerns, multiple publishing executives told The Washington Post that libraries were key to promoting new authors and stimulating sales, and that internal research did not support the same conclusion.
Meanwhile, Amazon Publishing - the company's 10-year-old book publishing arm with 16 imprints and a growing roster of big-name authors - has a different approach. It refuses to sell any e-books of its titles to libraries. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Amazon declined to comment.
Some readers are also moving to paid Netflix-like subscription services for e-books, such as Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, Bookmate and services tailored to specific genres, like Harlequin's romance e-book subscription service.
Librarians say the patrons most likely to be hurt by Macmillan's rule are people like D.V. Thorn, a voracious reader who is unable to leave their house and is mostly bed-bound due to disabilities. Thorn has read and listened to around 800 books so far this year through e-lending apps, and uses multiple area library accounts for the shortest hold times.
"Not only does it disproportionately target marginalized people, particularly multiply marginalized poor and disabled people, but it also shows they don't really understand libraries or their users," Thorn said. "A lot of people use the library to check out a book initially, and then buy copies for themselves for the books they love. I have been that person!"
Meanwhile, e-book lovers are finding more creative ways to make the most of libraries. Take Scott McNulty, an author who has written books about the Kindle, who downloads library books and then puts his device into airplane mode. "That way you can read an e-book after its due date because the Kindle has to be connected to the network to remove the book," McNulty said.
The book still appears as returned in the library system, so it doesn't hold up other readers. He sometimes even "returns" a book early to free it up.
Since auctioneer Stacie Hewitt always has her maximum five holds in the Libby app, and as multiple books can become available at once, she regularly uses the "suspend hold" option, which keeps her on the waitlist without going to the back of the line at her local Louisville library.
Some people interviewed by The Post admitted they borrow a parent's library log-in or sign up under their own name using a friend's address, but none would use their names for fear of losing access to their secret supply of e-books.
Cheating is not always necessary. A number of major library systems offer memberships to state residents, and even paid options for out-of-state readers. For example, anyone in New York can sign up for an "eCard" to access the Brooklyn Public Library. The Los Angeles Public Library charges $50 a year for a nonresident membership, though nonresidents must apply and renew in person.
Meanwhile, a free browser plug-in called Library Extension shows library book availability while browsing titles on Amazon. Since Seattle-based software engineer Andrew Abrahamowicz built the tool eight years ago, it's grown to around 5,000 libraries and more than 100,000 users. Abrahamowicz, who used to work for Amazon, says he believes the extension helps readers decide what they want to purchase.
"I don't think [publishers] would lose so much business in these cases," he said. "The people who are users of this extension are users of the library, and if they don't have it they'll buy it on Amazon."
The hacks themselves can be seen as evidence that publishers' e-book limits are working. That difficulty, dubbed "friction" by the industry, is the magic ingredient keeping the peace.
For her part, Jacobsson Purewal plans to keep adding to her collection of thousands of physical books. After using her library log-ins to track down "Blackjack Shuffle Tracker's Cookbook," she bought it.
If she's found out, "I'm a member of enough libraries, they can't all kick me out," she said.