Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Cost of Ebooks vs Print Books for Libraries

Some people think ebooks are free for libraries.  Some people think libraries pay the same for ebooks as individual buyers do.  However, ebooks are not free and libraries pay more for ebooks than individuals.  They pay a lot more.  A list of policies the main five publishers have with libraries can be found at this link from the American Library Association from Fall 2014:     
Ebooks are leased from publishers; they are not purchased.  The lease expires after a specified number of borrowings or a specified length of time.  Two years ago, best-selling ebooks rented for $85 for 25 borrowings.  That works out to $3.40 cost-per-checkout (CPC).  At the Fairfax Library Advocates' second meeting we were told by three Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) branch managers that hardcovers usually survive 100 borrowings before they wear out.  With the 40% discount libraries get from publishers, a $20 hardcover costs the library $12.  Cost-per-check out using 100 borrowings in a book's lifetime is 12 cents.  In 2013 it cost the library 28 times more to put a best-selling ebook in the hands of a patron than a print book.

Since 2013, publishers have changed their pricing policies for libraries.  They all charge different amounts now.  However, most still have expirations on ebook leases.  Once those leases expire, if the library wants to be able to lend an ebook, the library has to purchase another lease.   Based on the information from the guidelines referenced above, the estimate on current ebook costs-per-checkout is that they are four to ten times the cost of print books.  If we had more precise information on what FCPL is actually paying for ebooks, we would have a clearer picture of the difference in the cost of ebooks vs print books.

There is a finite amount of money for the purchase of library materials.  Recently the materials budget has been less than 10% of the whole FCPL budget, or $2.5 million.  When money is diverted from the materials budget to rent ebooks, there is less money to buy print books.  When we rent ebooks one has to wonder what print books are not being purchased for the library.  What are we doing without?

Ebook prices are a moving target and pricing guidelines may have changed since the document was compiled last fall for ALA, but as of last fall it's clear that ebooks cost libraries much, much more than print books.  

Kathy Kaplan
Fairfax Library Advocates


  1. Last week all 205 ordered mysteries and thrillers were ebooks. I found that appalling as well as fiscally irresponsible.

  2. The library administration seems to have chosen to have the library be an entertainment center (popular books at four times the hardcover price) rather than an intellectual center. The choice must be reversed. We already have many, many entertainment centers. We have too few intellectual centers.