Author Debbie Travis prepares to record a passage from her book at her publisher’s studio, in Toronto on Thursday, July 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Cost of ebooks, audiobooks ‘not a sustainable model,’ library council says

  • Dec. 17, 2018 3:56 p.m.

EDMONTON — If your holiday plans include downloading an audiobook of Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” from a public library collection, or unwinding with an electronic copy of Justin Trudeau’s “Common Ground,” you could be out of luck.

Libraries across Canada are running into barriers in accessing both ebooks and digital audiobooks for their patrons.

Sharon Day, who chairs an e-content working group for the Canadian Urban Library Council, says major ebook publishers are charging unfair prices and Audible — the company that owns the rights to many digital audiobooks — is declining to share them at all.

“Some of the material just isn’t available at all,” Day said, noting that’s especially true for audiobooks.

In the case of ebooks, there are restrictive library licensing models in place that are set by the publishers, she said.

Each of Canada’s “Big 5” publishers — Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster — subscribe to the so-called one copy, one user model that mirrors a physical lending model. That means the ebook ‘copy’ can only be downloaded on one device at a time.

Some of those publishers also have more restrictions. For example, each copy of a Macmillan ebook expires after 52 circulations or two years, whichever comes first, Day said.

However, the problem isn’t necessarily the model but the price, she said. While a physical book might cost $22, it can cost the library $100 for a copy of the electronic version.

“We face excessively high prices and restrictive models for these ebooks,” she said.

The price continues to rise when libraries purchase multiple copies of an ebook — and multiple forms of the same book, including hard and soft covers and audiobooks — in an effort to shorten waitlists.

“It’s not a sustainable model. We’re having trouble making sure we have all the content for our customers that they want to see,” Day said.

Neither Audible nor the Big 5 publishers could immediately be reached for comment.

While demand for ebooks has levelled off in the overall book market, it continues to rise at libraries.

Ebooks made up 18 per cent of sales in the first half of 2018, compared with 20 per cent in 2017 and 17 per cent in 2016, figures collected from online and physical retailers by BookNet Canada show.

Audiobooks made up four per cent of all reported purchases, up from two per cent in 2017 and three per cent in 2016, BookNet Canada said.

Day said that at the Edmonton Public Library, where she is director of branch services and collections, ebook demand is increasing by about 20 per cent per year. And demand for audiobooks at the six biggest libraries in Canada grew by 82 per cent over the past three years, she said.

Day said libraries aren’t looking for a handout — just a more fair deal that balances the importance of compensating authors with providing democratic access to the content.

“It’s our core mandate to provide universal access to information for everyone in a society,” she said.

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