Of the many changes wrought by the pandemic on the publishing industry, one of the most dramatic has been on library circulation. OverDrive, the biggest US distributor of digital materials to libraries and schools, saw lending increase by 33 percent in 2020; as libraries closed and stopped ordering print materials, many shifted their budgets to digital collections. But buying and lending digital materials poses challenges for most library budgets.
Ebook and audiobook prices and restrictions have increased over time, making it more expensive for libraries to circulate digital materials. The New Yorker recently covered what the costs look like for an institution such as The New York Public Library: For Barack Obama’s A Promised Land (Penguin Random House), the library system bought 639 one- and two-year licenses for the ebook, paying a total of $22,512. Each copy of the ebook can be lent to one person at a time. (The consumer ebook sells for about $18 per copy.) As of August 2021, the library has spent less than $10,000 on 226 copies of the hardcover edition, which retails for $45 but sells for about half that on Amazon.
As seen in the example above, Big Five publisher titles typically have to be renewed after a specific number of lends or a set time period of one or two years. Assuming library budgets and collections move to majority digital, there will not really be such a thing as a permanent collection anymore, but more of an ever-shifting collection. Librarians have been vocal about their frustration, and Maryland notably passed legislation requiring publishers to license ebooks under “reasonable terms.” The Association of American Publishers has condemned this and the law likely cannot stand given federal laws related to copyright. Still, Congress is applying pressure and asking questions of publishers.