There are a number of factors that make it much more complicated for a public library to make ebooks available to their patrons than it is for an individual to buy a copy of an ebook.

Library ebook pricing varies widely. For most bestsellers, an individual can go to their favorite site and purchase an ebook copy for themselves for less than $15. At the time of this post, for instance, Where the Crawdads Sing is available for $14.99 at Amazon, Apple, Google and other retailers. The same ebook costs SCLSNJ $55. (For comparison, with the volume discount we get from our vendors, we can get a print copy of Where the Crawdads Sing for $14.22.)

Use of library ebooks is like use of other library books: one copy, one user. It doesn’t matter that it’s digital and that multiple people could technically be accessing the same content at the same time. SCLSNJ is only allowed to make the ebooks in our collection available to one user at a time. That means that we have buy multiple copies of titles in high demand, just like we do for print books.

Licensing terms vary widely. For some publishers, ebooks are like regular books: once we buy it, it’s ours until we decide it’s no longer needed. For other publishers, licensing expires based on a certain time period. (Where the Crawdads Sing is a 24 month license, which means that if we want to use it after the two-year mark, we have to repurchase it.) Still other publishers allow a certain number of checkouts before licensing expires. 26 checkouts is a common limit, after which we have to repurchase if we want to continue to offer the title.

Timely access to ebooks varies widely. Most publishers release their ebook editions on the same day as new print titles. There are some publishers who impose an embargo for libraries. Books published by Tor are a notable example — they are not available to libraries until three months after publication. And Macmillan’s new licensing terms will only allow libraries to buy a single copy for the first eight weeks of publication.

In addition to the convenience that attracts consumers to ebooks, there are benefits for libraries, too:

  • We don’t have to create physical space for extra copies of a bestseller that has run its course.
  • There’s no such thing as an overdue ebook — they check themselves in, which makes the waiting list move faster.
  • We don’t have to worry about fines and fees for loss or damage. If your dog gets ahold of your ebook device, she’s not going to leave tooth marks in the Library’s copy of the book you’re reading. (Your phone might be another story…)

However, because ebooks are much more complicated for libraries than other kinds of material, we have to constantly adjust our approach to make the best use of the funds we have.

Here are some other examples:

Title Publisher Ebook – consumer Ebook – library List Price (print) Cost to SCLSNJ
Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens
Putnam (Penguin) $14.99 $55.00 $26.00 $14.22 (hardcover)
The Inn
by James Patterson and Candace Fox
Little, Brown (Hachette) $14.99 $65.00 $28.00 $15.32 (hardcover)
by Tara Westover
Random House (Penguin) $14.99 $55.00 $28.00 $15.32 (hardcover)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
by Maria Semple
Little, Brown (Hachette) $7.99 $65.00 $16.99 $10.11 (paperback)