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E-book restrictions hamper libraries, Kanawha director says

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While more people continue to check out electronic books from the Kanawha County Public Library, the limitations set by publishing companies have become a threat to libraries buying the e-books, the library's director said.

Alan Engelbert said there are 30,000 e-books available through the West Virginia Digital Entertainment Library Initiative, an online database the Kanawha County Public Library and nine other libraries across the state have access to for checking out e-books.

Libraries could have access to more e-books, but publishing companies are essentially freezing them out of the electronic market by placing onerous conditions upon them, Engelbert told members of the Rotary Club of Charleston on Monday.

E-book checkouts at the main library have increased 25 percent since 2011 and have grown in popularity nationally as well.

Digital books represented just 1 percent of the publishing industry's sales in 2008, but claimed 23 percent of sales in 2012, according to the Association of American Publishers.

But publishers have created a "complex environment" with libraries, Engelbert said. For example, some refuse to sell e-books to libraries at all, he said.

"We couldn't pay any amount of money to get their product, which, when you think about a book publisher refusing to sell books to libraries, it's an amazing concept," Engelbert said.

Other publishers have set limits on the lease and license titles of e-books, he said.

For example, some publishers have a 26-use limit on library e-books. After an e-book is checked out 26 times at the library, the e-book isn't available anymore.

Engelbert said publishers believe a book wears out after 26 uses, and since e-books don't wear out, they limit how much one e-book can be read to "get more money for it."

Some publishers wait until a book has been for sale for six months before they release it as an e-book to libraries. Then, they'll enforce the 26-use rule, he said.

"So if you're No. 27 on that list and you have a hold on something, it might disappear," Engelbert said. "If you're an e-book user and you wonder why there's access to some titles and not others, it's probably because they didn't want to sell it to us. It's not the libraries doing it, it's licensing. It's a very strange and muddled marketplace."

To further bind libraries, publishers also mark up e-book prices, he said.

A book that costs a regular e-book customer $9.99 goes for $88 if a library wants to buy it, he said.

Engelbert said it's "disgraceful" for publishers to treat libraries in such a manner.

"None of the [limitation] models are attractive to libraries," Engelbert said. "We're used to buying a book and doing with it what we wanted. ... Now, if you buy an e-book, you're limited."

He wants publishers to find a fair way libraries can participate in the e-book market.

Libraries could have "far more e-book material" available if publishers maintained a coherent market where libraries could buy them.

"Publishers need to arrive at a stable business model that includes libraries and allows libraries to function reasonably well and economically within that business model," Engelbert said. "That really hasn't happened yet, and until it does, it's going to continue to be less than ideal."

Also on Monday, Engelbert told Rotarians about the library's role in the November special election, which the library's board of directors had hoped would include a vote for excess levies to support both the school board and the library with one joint ballot item, instead of checking two separate boxes on the ballot.

The school board, which was legally relieved of helping to fund the library earlier this year but had agreed to continue some funding, voted 4-1 later Monday to combine the library and school levies into one ballot item.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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