Lending of e-books not always easy for suburban libraries

Anyone interested in reading author Dan Brown’s latest best-seller, “Inferno,” on a Kindle can download a copy for roughly $13.

But for many suburban libraries, downloading that same book so that it can be lent out to patrons costs $85.

That’s a hefty difference in price, and it’s one reason why public libraries have had difficulty keeping up with the demand for e-books in the suburbs.

“At $85 a copy for many popular titles, we just can’t afford to buy that many,” said Cathleen Blair, the readers’ advisory librarian at the Mount Prospect Public Library. “We aren’t able to provide patrons with something they clearly want.”

E-books have been growing in popularity for the past few years, but borrowing them from suburban libraries can still be a challenge. Some popular titles have unusually long waiting lists, while others aren’t available at all. That’s because the country’s biggest publishing houses, often referred to as the “Big Six” publishers, have not rushed to make e-books available to libraries. Those that do have different lending and pricing policies that serve to limit access.

“Aside from the price, there are often embargoes for certain works, and different limits on borrowing from publisher to publisher,” Blair said. “It can get very confusing.”

There are signs, though, that change is on the horizon. This past spring, New York-based publisher Simon & Schuster launched a one-year pilot program in which all of its titles would be made available in e-book form to three library systems in New York. At the end of the program, Simon & Schuster will consider expanding it to libraries in different parts of the country.

Other major publishers — Macmillan, Penguin — have also taken steps recently to improve e-book availability at libraries.

All of which is good news for libraries in the suburbs, where interest in the e-book format is high.

“For us, it’s skyrocketing,” said Melissa Ziel, the e-book coordinator at the Gail Borden Public Library District, based in Elgin.

Ziel said the number of e-books checked out in the Gail Borden district through the end of June 2013 was up by 51 percent over the same time last year. During the fiscal year that ran from July 2012 through June 2013, roughly 31,780 e-books were checked out, she said.

“E-books are still a small portion of our overall circulation, but it’s clear those numbers are going to keep going up,” she said.

Blair and Ziel both expressed optimism about the future of e-book lending, predicting that the Big Six eventually will follow the many smaller, independent publishers that have already partnered with libraries.

“The pilot programs we’re seeing in New York — that’s a good sign,” Blair said.

Simon & Schuster’s program allows the participating libraries to lend out e-books to an unlimited number of users, but each e-book can be checked out by just one person at a time. The libraries are also offering patrons the chance to buy their own copies of e-books via the libraries’ online portals.

Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster, said initial response to the publisher’s e-book pilot program has been enthusiastic.

“Everyone thought it was a great idea, and the libraries we’re working with are busily ordering away,” he said. “Our hope is that we’d be able to expand it once this initial program is over.”

Simon & Schuster has been cautious about offering e-books to libraries until now because e-books pose potential hazards to the company’s business that print books don’t, Rothberg said. He pointed out that e-books never get tattered and worn the way print books do, and people can download them without having to leave their living-room sofas.

“We love working with libraries, but we had to be comfortable that this would not cut into our core business,” he said. “We had to come to a place where we felt our authors’ works and interests were protected. E-books are a relatively new thing, only a few years old at this point, so we’re still working out a best practice.”

  Batavia Public Library Director George Sheetz stands in the library’s Technology Petting Zoo, a place where patrons can learn how to use e-readers. Suburban libraries want to lend more e-books to patrons, but the country’s biggest publishers haven’t made it easy. John Starks file photo/
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