Libraries Add Value: The Case of the Skyrocketing E-Book Price
I mentioned last month that Random House would raise e-book prices on March 1. It turns out that the perpetual access, one user at a time model Random House favors is costing in the neighborhood of triple the hardcover price. Bobbi Newman gave a few examples over at Librarian by Day, in which Random House's pricing model for this access seems to decrease over time, coinciding with and similar to a book's availability in hardcover, then eventually in paperback.
It seems that this news is resonating most loudly in the public library sector, of library sectors in the United States. How does this price change affect collection development in the public library market? What does it say about the value of public libraries? I have far more questions than answers, but hear me out.
First, when I think of a public library, as an academic librarian, I think of a library with relatively few titles with much broader appeal title-for-title than my employers' collections. The collections are organized around various stages of human life, from child to adult, as are services and programming. My Platonic form of a public library weeds constantly, striving to keep current titles on the shelves along with other titles that have retained a certain level of appeal over time. Its catalog is hard to navigate, compared to some of the high-end enhancements I've seen at large academic libraries, but its clunkiness is mitigated by and mostly OK for its smaller collection.
Heretofore Platonic PL has kept mostly a print collection and leased multiple copies of hot titles, of which it may retain one or a couple. Over time, even most of those find their way out of the collection, as shelf space is scarce and demand for them wanes. Indeed, the Random House frontlist is well-represented in the leased collection and a few series' volumes will be acquired for the long term.
Now that the Random House titles are available as e-books at thrice the hardcover cost and to one user at a time, it doesn't obviate the need for the leased collection, our holds system can't accommodate the e-book model as well as the print (and multiple-copy) model, and I just don't see how it's worth the price in most cases to buy the e-book version. Random House's statement sent to LJ reads, in part, “[O]ur guiding principles in setting these new e-prices are the unrestricted and perpetual availability of our complete frontlist and backlist of Random House, Inc. titles under a model of one-copy, one user.” Furthermore, “We believe that pricing to libraries must account for the higher value of this institutional model, which permits e-books to be repeatedly circulated without limitation.”
It echoes the HarperCollins fiasco of last year, in which e-book “copies” arbitrarily stopped being available after 26 uses by patrons of a given library. Then, librarians questioned the notion of a 26-circulation limit; now I question the “higher value” to an institution that has never invested heavily in huge collections and perpetual access to them. Truly, this price point is a first step and
Random House is aiming high, as it's easier to negotiate down if the model doesn't work, than to keep ratcheting up the cost multiplier of newer titles over time. If public libraries don't bite, the price will come down and if it doesn't, public libraries will continue to provide Random House titles through one of the aforementioned alternative methods.
When the supply and demand find a happy balance around a sustainable price point, I'm curious to see where that balance happens and the impact it has on public libraries' offerings to us patrons. Books in series that have continued to have new titles appear for many years are great candidates for a perpetual access e-book model. In my household, I can tell you the demand for a smartphone version of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy is in high demand. (I would prefer to have a print copy, which we can easily share among the members of the house, rather than passing around the family's only smartphone, which isn't mine.)
This brings me to another question: how are the higher prices going to affect readers' behavior? If the library invests in a super-expensive copy of a high-demand e-book, will it satisfy patrons' demand as well as several, cheaper leased and print copies? Where will the balance shift patrons' responses: to buying a print copy, to buying an e-book for their own use, or waiting for the checked-out e-book to become available?
For Random House, these are questions of marketing and bottom lines; for libraries, these questions suggest that at least one of the “big six” publishers has hinted that our profession provides value to our communities. Examining Bobbi Newman's example of Eisenhower in War and Peace, whose e-book price to her library jumped from $40 to $120 with Random House's announcement, I see that Amazon.com lists the Kindle version at $19.99. That says to me that, a single-user e-book, in probably a less-preferred format, offered for lending by a library may be six times as valuable in this market as the same content, in a better—almost certainly, more portable—format. Whether or not the price discrepancy between selling to a person and selling to a library is justified, on the bright side, libraries can make a case with this information that the value they add is measurable and has been estimated by one big publisher.