High Licensing Costs Threaten E-Book Library Collections Across State

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The 40 libraries in Connecticut’s LION Library Consortium will lose $1 million worth of e-books by the end of the year, and 80 percent of their leased e-books and audiobook collections within the next two years. 

The reason, said the consortium’s eBook Committee Chair Rebecca Harlow, is the licensure agreements that libraries are forced to make with a small group of publishers, which offer contracts that include short-term licensures and limit the number of times a library can lend ebooks or their ability to share between libraries. 

“We have completely lost the ability to build a library collection,” Harlow said. 

Library representatives gathered at the capital on Wednesday, asking state legislators to support a law that would prohibit publishers and “aggregators” — companies that license books from multiple publishers — from offering contracts that make it prohibitive for libraries to lend e-books freely or retain the ebooks in their collection.

CT Library Consortium Executive Director Ellen Paul told legislators that librarians pay half price for most print books in their collections, but e-books are a different story. 

According to Paul, e-books cost six to 10 times more than a print book and are removed from the collection after either two years or 26 borrows. 

“Connecticut libraries, they just can’t keep up. The waitlists for e-books are over six months long. Our budgets are strained because we have to keep rerenting “Harry Potter” at the same exorbitant prices over and over again,” Paul said. 

Harlow said LION pays about $20,000 per month on e-books. 

She compared the cost of renting 170 e-books to the cost of purchasing the same books from Amazon. The e-books averaged to about $50 a book, while the print books averaged $16 — a collected difference of about $5,700. 

“The majority of the library’s 170 books will be gone in 12 months, and our $20,000-a-month budget doesn’t get us very far,” Harlow said. “There’s at least a six-month waitlist for any popular titles, including ones that were published over a decade ago.”

And the high cost makes adding additional e-books to the collection difficult. 

“We aren’t able to even consider developing the type of equitable and diverse collections that my colleagues just talked about. We can barely afford to add nonfiction books,” she said. 

State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, called the costs “astonishing.” 

“It is scandalous that this is happening in virtually all of our towns when a copy of “Moby Dick” — a printed copy of “Moby Dick” — which was published in the 1850s, has been sitting on your shelves since God knows how long, and hundreds and hundreds of people have taken it out and it hasn’t cost the taxpayer one more cent, except maybe to replace it,” Palm said.

‘A public good’

A bill raised in the House of Representatives last year would prohibit agreements with publishers or aggregators that contained provisions restricting the length of time that a library is able to loan a material, or the number of times the library can loan the material over the course of a limited period. 

The bill was a bipartisan effort, led by State Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, and State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield. The bill passed through committee, but an unrelated amendment was attached to it, and thus was never voted forward on the floor. 

Harlow noted another reason for the high cost of e-books was that the publishing industry was dominated by several large players which work with a single distributor, called Overdrive. This means fewer competitive prices, she said, tipping the balance of power in the publisher’s favor. 

Attorney Kyle Courtney, who founded the eBook Study Group in 2020 to advocate for legislation that eliminates restrictive provisions in contracts between libraries and publishers, said he was discussing e-book licensing with other states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Hawaii and Illinois. 

Courtney said in Connecticut, existing consumer protection and contract laws can be extended to cover libraries as well.   

“The idea is that if publishers want the millions and millions of dollars that Connecticut libraries have to get resources for our citizens and patrons … if they want to do business in the state, then they would have to comply with the requirements of the law in that state,” Courtney said. 

But DeGraw said it wouldn’t be easy.

“The publishers do not want to come to the table on this. They have no interest in negotiating whatsoever. It is a challenge, as a small state, that we would be the ones bringing this forward and trying to be the first of many states to put this forward,” Kavros DeGraw said. 

But DeGraw added she thought the challenge was worth it, particularly for children and seniors who were most likely to use the library resources. 

Kate Byloane, director of the Cragin Memorial Library in Colchester, told CT Examiner that e-books were ideal for people with poor eyesight or dyslexia, because they could enlarge text or change fonts. They also afford privacy to people in situations of domestic violence, or struggling with addiction or mental illness, she said.

Byloane said Cragin partners with the local early childhood collaborative, which works with parents on parenting skills, but that the library doesn’t have the money to provide a variety of titles. 

“Just yesterday, I spent nearly $1,200 in grant funds from the collaborative that they received from the state to lease 12 parenting titles in e-book and or audiobook format. All but one of the e-books will vanish from the collection in two years. Yet in two years, parents will still need books on parenting children from infancy through adolescence.”

Alicia Cook, a school library media specialist in New Haven, said their use of e-books started during the pandemic, when the school was unable to loan physical copies of books to students. Students are now back at school, but she said e-books are still necessary and expensive. 

“I do work in an urban district. My kids have a need for these e-books. My kids may not have a solid home. So they may spend time in the morning with mom, and then after school, they’re at grandma’s. Then on the weekend, they’re at dad’s. This is a way that a book doesn’t get lost in the back of a car or a bus,” Cook said. 

Hwang said he understood the importance of copyright protection, but that the difference between the cost of e-books on Amazon and the cost for libraries through the publishers was shocking. 

“For heaven’s sake, you’re doing a public good, and it is providing a public service. And to have that staggering differential is unfathomable to the normal consumer out there that understands it,” Hwang said. 

He praised the title of the act — “Right to Read.”

“Ultimately, you talk to anybody up and down Main Street — this is a patent unfairness. And the only people that suffer and lose are the consumers, and an opportunity to learn and read,” he said.


Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com