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.