October 15, 2009 > MOTOKO RICH
Kate Lambert recalls using her library card just once or twice throughout her childhood. Now, she uses it several times a month.
The lure? Electronic books she can download to her laptop. Beginning earlier this year, Ms. Lambert, a 19-year-old community college student in New Port Richey, Fla., borrowed volumes ... .
“I can just go online and type my library card number in and look through all the books that they have,” said Ms. Lambert, who usually downloads from the comfort of her bedroom. And, she added, “It’s all for free.”
Eager to attract digitally savvy patrons and capitalize on the growing popularity of electronic readers, public libraries across the country are expanding collections of books that reside on servers rather than shelves.
About 5,400 public libraries now offer e-books, as well as digitally downloadable audio books. The collections are still tiny compared with print troves. The New York Public Library, for example, has about 18,300 e-book titles, compared with 860,500 in circulating print titles, and purchases of digital books represent less than 1 percent of the library’s overall acquisition budget.
But circulation is expanding quickly. The number of checkouts has grown to more than 1 million so far this year from 607,275 in all of 2007, according to OverDrive, a large provider of e-books to public libraries. NetLibrary, another provider of e-books to about 5,000 public libraries and a division of OCLC, a nonprofit library service organization, has seen circulation of e-books and digital audio books rise 21 percent over the past year.
Together with the Google books settlement — which the parties are modifying to satisfy the objections of the Department of Justice and others — the expansion of e-books into libraries heralds a future in which more reading will be done digitally.
For now, the expansion will be slowed partly because, with few exceptions, e-books in libraries cannot be read on Amazon’s Kindle, the best-selling electronic reader, or on Apple’s iPhone, which has rapidly become a popular device for reading e-books. Most library editions are compatible with the Sony Reader, computers and a handful of other mobile devices.
For now, the advent of e-book borrowing has not threatened physical libraries by siphoning away visitors because the recession has driven so many new users seeking free resources through library doors. [snip]
Some librarians suggest that because digital books never wear out, take up no shelf space and could, in theory, be read by multiple people at the same time, the purchasing model for e-books should be different than it is for print.
Some librarians object to the current pricing model because they often pay more for e-books than do consumers who buy them on Amazon or in Sony’s online store. Publishers generally charge the same price for e-books as they do for print editions, but online retailers subsidize the sale price of best sellers by marking them down to $9.99.
Academic publishers have been more willing to experiment with subscription models, inviting libraries to pay an annual fee for unlimited access to certain books. Scholastic Inc., the children’s book publisher, also offers library subscriptions to BookFlix, a collection of picture books that children can read online.
Steve Potash, the chief executive of OverDrive, said publishers should regard library e-books as a form of marketing. Many people who browse a library’s online catalog end up buying the books, he said, although he could provide no evidence of that.
Some publishers agree that library e-books, like print versions, can attract new customers. “We’ve always strongly believed that there is a conversion point where they do start to buy their own,” said Malle Vallik, the director of digital content at Harlequin Enterprises, the romance publisher.