'Unaffordable, unsustainable and extremely unfair':  Libraries battle publishers for equal access to ebooks

Libraries battle publishers for equal access to ebooks
'Unaffordable, unsustainable and extremely unfair':  Libraries battle publishers for equal access to ebooks

Traditional books on the shelves of MTU Bishopstown library in Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

There is a lot we can improve on in this country, but our libraries are one public service realm where we truly shine.

In recent years, local libraries have done stellar work removing potential barriers that stop people from making full use of their services.

In 2019, fines for overdue books were abolished, and many public libraries now open extended hours to help accommodate different schedules.

Many college libraries have also undergone impressive renovations and refurbishment projects. A few now even officially encourage frazzled students to take a nap in their futuristic sound-proof ‘sleeping pods’.

As technology changes and readers adapt, libraries have too. E-lending has been an important service offered by libraries here for the last ten years but rolling restrictions during the pandemic sent demand for e-books, and e-audiobooks, into overdrive.

E-book loans have doubled since 2019, while e-audiobook loans have trebled.

But with demand at an all-time high, Covid-19 also exacerbated a vicious, international battle that Irish libraries have been fighting for years, bringing gaps in outdated legislation into sharp focus.

The digital age has opened up markets for ebooks, audiobooks, and print-on-demand. Picture: iStock
The digital age has opened up markets for ebooks, audiobooks, and print-on-demand. Picture: iStock

Unregulated

According to the Library Association of Ireland, e-books operate in a largely unregulated market, with no standardised pricing and onerous terms and conditions. As a result, library budgets are being eaten up by the repurchasing of e-titles they will never own.

As well as logistical headaches and disappearing titles, it clashes with the core principle at the heart of our libraries; Democratic access to information.

“We’re there to make information available to citizens, whatever their information needs are,” said Cathal McCauley, president of the Library Association of Ireland.

“That’s why we are so worried about this problem, we don’t want to not be able to make information available to some citizens or students, and we don’t want to just make it available to certain segments.” It’s an “existential issue” for libraries. 

“One thing that libraries try to do is build up a core collection that’s available to anyone, be it a citizen or a student. The idea of content appearing, and disappearing is really disconcerting.” 

Licence

Stuart Hamilton is a council member of the Library Association of Ireland. As the head of the Library's Development Team at the Local Government Management Agency, he works with county librarians on the National Public Library Strategy.

“In my day job, I get to see the effect this is having, and the concern that exists across the local authorities in the increasing amount of resources that are devoted to something that, frankly, is offering an unsustainable model.” Unlike a traditional paperbound book, you obviously can’t just buy an e-book and pop it on a shelf.

Libraries instead must ‘license’ access to a title from a publisher through a third-party aggregator, essentially renting them.

With a traditional book, the library pays once and it gets to keep it, loaning it out for as long as it's physically viable.

“You cannot do the same with an e-book; you can only license it from a third party.” With the licensing of an e-book comes individual terms and conditions which are decided by the publishers. Libraries must accept whatever restrictions publishers put on these e-titles.

As a result, more than 40% of the national collection of e-book titles have restrictions on them, where limits are placed on the number of loans per title or time limits on the licensing agreement.

More than 10% have the strictest restrictions, where items can only be loaned 26 times before they need to be repurchased.

Print and digital collections of books. According to the Library Association of Ireland, e-books operate in a largely unregulated market, with no standardised pricing and onerous terms and conditions attached through licencing of the ebook.
Print and digital collections of books. According to the Library Association of Ireland, e-books operate in a largely unregulated market, with no standardised pricing and onerous terms and conditions attached through licencing of the ebook.

“If we license a book for the public library service, some can only be lent something like 26 times, and then it disappears, and you have to buy it again”

“Or we might be able to have it for a year, and then it disappears, and we have to buy it again. You might be buying the same book again and again." 

Take a title like The Thursday Murder Club’ one of the most popular books of 2021.

“What we’d find is that the waiting lists would be generated really quickly because you are getting through 26 loans quickly, and then you are paying for the same e-book book again, and again, and again.” 

“In order to satisfy demand, a large amount of your expenditure is going on a small number of titles.” 

On average, an e-book tends to cost more than twice the price of a print title, even though publishers don’t have the same costs of distribution or printing as they do with traditional books.

In some cases, e-books have been priced four times the cost of a print book.

“That basically begins to tell on the bottom line of the budget, which is taxpayers' money.” 

 “You are not getting the same value for money as you’d get in the print market, and not only are you not getting the same value, but you are also getting the license terms as well.” 

As a result, a lot of funding is going towards re-purchasing bestsellers and popular titles on e-books meaning less money is available to grow collections.

“You are shovelling money into this furnace, and you are never getting to own the product. It’s a completely different way of providing materials in public libraries than we are used to.” 

 He is keen to stress that Irish publishers are very fair. 

“When it comes to dealing with Irish publishers who make e-books available, we’re in very good shape.” 

But the English-speaking market is dominated by the ‘Big Five’ publishers - Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster and Macmillan —  which control approximately 80% of the bestseller market.

Not every publisher will libraries license their books, meaning library users don’t have access to titles published by Hachette.

"With Penguin Random House, there’s a window before libraries can license books. The book will become available to the public, and we cannot license it for some months afterward because of the terms and conditions attached by the publishers.” 

 “It’s completely different to the print environment, where libraries are effectively able to follow the mandate that they have, to build collections for their users in their communities. We are almost completely in the hands of publishers.” 

 “Budgets everywhere are very, very tight. It’s very frustrating to have to spend larger and larger sums of money on materials that you’ll never own.” 

Jean Ricken, head of library services, MTU Cork Campuses, pictured outside the MTU Bishopstown library. the campus is not in the business of putting up restrictions to book for students. Picture Denis Minihane.
Jean Ricken, head of library services, MTU Cork Campuses, pictured outside the MTU Bishopstown library. the campus is not in the business of putting up restrictions to book for students. Picture Denis Minihane.

Academia

 Jean Ricken is head of library services at Munster Technological University (MTU) Cork. She’s based in Bishopstown, one of MTU’s six campuses across Cork and Kerry.

“From MTU’s perspective, we are all about open doors, equality, inclusivity. We are not in the business of putting barriers in the way when it comes to education, knowledge, learning.” 

 “Yet our job as academic libraries to support the teaching and learning of a new TU is increasingly being hindered by these publishers who show little if any courtesy to libraries”.

Like public libraries, academic libraries also must license e-books, which are provided to third-party aggregators on behalf of publishers.

Most university libraries have an annual bundle subscription that includes a package of roughly 100,000 e-books.

“We always try and enable access to e-books by favouring multi-user licenses over single-user access licensing models.” 

 “Our goal is always to buy perpetual access, and multi-user access to a book so that we own it in perpetuity so that everyone has access to it.” “We do this to ensure our students and staff can access the material they need regardless of their location, 24 hours a day, irrespective of where they are.” Long before the pandemic, college librarians were already well aware of unfair and unsustainable pricing models.

“When Covid came along and there was a sudden shift to online teaching, it definitely placed a spotlight on those issues, it compounded them.” “We found ourselves more and more having to explain to our communities that often, due to publisher restrictions, multi-license access to e-book titles was sometimes unattainable. It could potentially have a knock-on effect in a live online open book exam setting.” There was a common presumption if a library has a copy of an e-book, students would be able to access it during an exam.

“The library may have a copy of that book in a digital format, but the publisher would place a restriction on it. It may be a single-use access, or that there would be a queuing system for example if there wasn’t multi-user access.” 

 “We found we had to explain ourselves a lot more, that our hands were tied, that we weren’t the ones setting the licensing models on these books, and depending on the title of the book, the model varies depending on what the publisher dictates.” Publishers might also decide to pull titles from the bundles a university has access to. 

Jean Ricken, head of library services, MTU Cork Campuses, in the MTU Bishopstown library.
Jean Ricken, head of library services, MTU Cork Campuses, in the MTU Bishopstown library.

Power

“They could do that a few times a year and we get notified those new titles have been added but equally, they’ve pulled titles.” 

 “Then we have to scurry off to buy it directly so we can have access if it’s a popular title.” Most college libraries tend to have good working relationships with their licensing aggregators, she explained.

“They are also getting short notice from the publishers, who might decide to pull a couple of hundred titles from a subscription package, or just remove them altogether so if clients want to retain the,, they have to go buy.” Issues came to a head last Christmas, when Pearson, an academic publisher, announced the licensing for its e-book titles was to increase across the board by 400%.

“That was the most frightening thing really to see and experience that firsthand, "Jean said.

“The total power and control the publisher had to make a decision like this, and obviously what came with that is a fear that other publishers may follow suit. We were lucky that we had some money available to snap up titles at cost before they skyrocketed.” 

“It was all hands-on deck and panic stations. We were quite successful, thankfully, but it was a position we should have never had to be in.” 

“We can’t always afford to buy the material, or even if we had all the money in the world, in some cases they aren’t making the titles available. They want the student to go out and buy them themselves.” 

 “It’s scary to think about the control and power these publishers are having. I don’t know where it ends, where does it stop? What we do know is that it’s unaffordable, unsustainable and it’s extremely unfair.” 

 The Library Association of Ireland is calling for the introduction of legislation to ensure e-books are made available to libraries under reasonable terms and conditions.

This can be done by enshrining in law a library’s right to license and/or purchase any commercially available ebook without embargo.

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