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High ebook prices ‘unsustainable,’ says city’s top librarian

Publishers charge libraries up to $135 for an ebook, five times as much as the public would pay.
June 18, 2015
By Ethan Lou

Toronto Public Library is crying foul over “unreasonably high” ebook prices that it says limit its titles as demand soars for virtual reading.

The organization’s top executive, Vickery Bowles, said publishers charge vastly different prices to libraries than average consumers, and the ebooks come also with many usage restrictions.

In an interview with the Star on Tuesday, the city librarian called the prices and conditions “unsustainable,” saying some publishers charge libraries $85 for an ebook while the average consumer gets the same title for only $15.99.

“That puts a lot of pressure on our budget,” she said. “We need something that is more reasonable.”

According to information provided by the library, the Big Five, large publishers that provide about half the library’s books, charge libraries roughly 1.5 to five times the price average consumers pay for ebooks, and some stipulate they can be used only a certain number of times or over a certain period.

The highest prices come from Random House Canada and Hachette Book Group, which charge up to $85 and $135 per book, respectively.

HarperCollins Canada appears to have the strictest usage restrictions, allowing a book to be used only 26 times. Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster make libraries repurchase the titles after a year.

The Star sought comment from all the publishers, but none was immediately available.

Bowles did not say how much such prices and conditions have cost the library. Figures provided by the organization show last year it spent nearly $2.8 million on its electronic collection - mostly ebooks, with some audio books - a number it expects to grow.

In 2009, the library spent under $200,000 on its electronic collection, 1.1 per cent of total spending. That figure is expected to be more than $3 million for this year, almost 20 per cent of the entire collections budget.

Bowles said the demand for ebooks is growing faster than the library’s ability to provide them, causing wait times longer than four months as six people wait for a single book.

“For print books ... once that increases past the six, we purchase more copies,” she said. “But we don’t do that for ebooks because we can’t afford to.”

Usage restrictions and price differentials do not exist for physical books, which libraries sometimes can buy for up to 40 per cent off their shelf prices.

Bowles said the library would prefer a “hybrid model” with lower prices and no restrictions for a certain number of copies, adding that she understands the organization does need to “pay a premium.

“If Toronto Public Library is going to (need) 100 copies of an ebook, what would work for us is if we could buy 10 copies at a premium price of, say, $40 per copy, and we would have ongoing and perpetual access to those 10 copies,” she said.

“The 90 copies we would buy at a lower rate and those copies can expire in a year.”