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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Libraries, publishers struggling to get on same digital page

Once upon a time, people read books on paper, and the publishers who printed them and the librarians who lent them to people were friends, or at least amicable partners. Publishers made books, libraries made them accessible.

“We helped advertise their wares,” said Rob Roose, support services manager at Spokane Public Library, in charge of the library’s print and electronic collections. “People would come to the library, see a book and say, ‘Oh, that’s one I’d like to own.’ They’d go buy it.”

But, as so often happens when things seemed to be going so well, obstacles arose. Slick devices emerged – Kindles, Nooks, tablet computers and others – that let people download lots of books from the Internet (no paper required) and take them on vacation or toss them in their purses. People liked the devices. In large numbers, they gave them to one another for Christmas.

And as more readers and books went digital, libraries wanted to go there, too, by letting members check out e-books.

But publishers – mostly the Big Six, which together control about two-thirds of the U.S. consumer market, according to the American Library Association – got worried. Fearing free access to e-books would cut into their business, some refused to sell e-books to libraries. Some decided to charge libraries several times more for an e-book than they charged for print copies, or limit how many times an e-book could be checked out or how long a library could keep it before it had to buy it again.

Publisher-library affairs grew complicated.

“That warm relationship seems to have faded,” Roose said. “They now fear us. We’re taking away their business.”

Whether that’s true, he said, is unclear. But the complications, compounded by evolving and varied technology and publishers’ shifting and varied business models, continue for libraries in the Inland Northwest.

“You’re kind of at the mercy of the market,” said Bette Ammon, director of the Coeur d’Alene Public Library. “Everybody’s in this to make money, as far as the corporate side of it, so they’re going to try to do that as much as they can. The library lending model, though, still holds true. Libraries provide access to all kinds of material in all kinds of format, and we’ve done this forever.”

Some librarians in the Inland Northwest say just a willingness by publishers to sell them their products, and at affordable prices, would be a big improvement. But resolution doesn’t appear to be imminent. Publishers are struggling with their own issues, including the rise of self-publishing, which has attracted some popular, profitable authors along with unknowns.

But some recent developments suggest changes ahead: In April, Simon & Schuster, which had kept its entire e-book list off-limits to libraries, announced a pilot program to start offering them to New York City libraries. In May, fellow holdout Hachette said it would offer all its e-books to libraries, although at high prices and limiting library users to one e-book at a time.

“All of them are testing the waters one way or another,” Roose said.

Missing pages

E-books can be very convenient. When a reader finds an e-book he wants available through his library, he can download it from home, at any hour. It’ll stay on his e-reader until its due date, when it’ll disappear. He can download a bunch of books at once and take them on the road. If he has vision problems, he can adjust his e-reader’s type.

But that’s when the books are available. Because books from the Big Six tend to dominate best-seller lists, the most sought-after titles are often unavailable from libraries as e-books.

Take “Dead Ever After,” atop last week’s New York Times list of best-selling hardback fiction, Charlaine Harris’ final novel about telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse. The Spokane Public Library’s catalog showed 15 print copies one day last week – all checked out or on hold – but not one electronic copy.

“Dead Ever After” is published by Ace Books, an imprint of Penguin, which stopped selling new e-books to libraries in 2011. While Penguin recently launched a trial run with two e-book distributors that serve libraries, neither distributor is OverDrive, the primary one used by Spokane-area and North Idaho public libraries.

Penguin also publishes best-seller No. 2, therefore also unavailable as an e-book through the library. Nos. 3 and 4 were available, but No. 5 was out, too. “A Step of Faith” is published by Simon & Schuster.

Tallied up, the Spokane library offered just six e-books from the best-seller list of 16.

If the gaps are frustrating for readers, trying to close them has been a hard-to-cure headache for librarians.

Besides differences in big publishers’ business models in terms of prices, checkout limits and “expiration” dates, some of the Big Six will sell e-books to some libraries but not others, excluding library consortiums, for example, such as those serving smaller communities in the Inland Northwest.

Add to that the various formats in which e-books are published. Books in the EPUB format can be read on iPads, Nooks and some other readers. Amazon developed its own format, AZW, used exclusively on Kindles. Kindles don’t work with EPUB. E-books distributed via PDF can be read on Adobe’s Acrobat products.

There are others, each with its own parameters. And publishers might make a book available to libraries in one format but not another: A Nook user might be able to check out an e-book from a library that a Kindle user couldn’t.

“It’s the VHS vs. Betamax war times 15,” said Mark Pond, an audio-visual librarian at Spokane Public Library. “We don’t want to invest in the dead end and suddenly be left with a fabulous collection of stuff that no one can use.”

Meanwhile, a library member can go to Amazon and clearly see that a Kindle version of “Dead Ever After” is available for $12.99 with a promise to deliver wirelessly in less than a minute.

If an Amazon customer can buy the e-book to keep, why can’t the library buy it to lend out?

“They don’t understand why some of them are available through the library and some aren’t,” said Debra Park, who’s in charge of the adult collection for the Spokane County Library District. “It makes it a lot to explain at the front desk.”

Enthusiastic readers

Meanwhile, while e-reader devices met some skepticism as they made their debut, their popularity continues to grow.

E-book readership is rising much faster than print readership, New York Public Library President Anthony Marx wrote in May in a New York Times opinion piece advocating for more access for the public, including those who can’t afford to pay for downloads.

While his own library’s print circulation remained constant from 2011 to 2012, he wrote, e-book readership rose 168 percent. “Digital books could soon be the most popular book format,” Marx wrote.

The Pew Research Center reported in April 2012 that more than 21 percent of adults had read an e-book in the past year. Four times more people were reading e-books on a typical day than two years earlier, the Pew center said.

And people who read e-books read more books overall, Pew reported: an average of 24 in the past year, compared with 15 books by print-only readers.

Despite hurdles presented the biggest publishers, area librarians say, they’re still adding digital materials to their catalogs. While digital collections – e-books along with downloadable audiobooks, magazines, newspapers and music – are still dwarfed by the libraries’ print-materials collections, they’re growing more quickly, despite the often relatively high cost of some e-books.

It helps that non-Big Six publishers are more eager to sell e-books to libraries, and at affordable prices, Roose said: “If you are a midlist or a lower-than-midlist author, you would be thrilled to have your book exposed in the library.”

And even if they can’t download the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel, readers are taking advantage.

Spokane Public Library users, for example, borrowed e-books 2,453 times in April, compared with just 676 times in April 2011.

Cardholders in the Whitman County Rural Library District borrowed digital items 618 times in April, said Andrea Hergert, a library assistant at the Colfax branch.

That’s less than the district’s 12,000-plus print circulation, but more than its 200 or so checkouts a month when it started offering digital materials a few years.

“It’s increasing every day,” Hergert said.

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