Have you checked out an ebook or audiobook from the library lately? Since COVID, record numbers of readers have. And that comes at a huge cost to your public library, because they can’t own those digital materials, only “lease” them from most publishers.https://t.co/Uo5bPsLQM7
— Internet Archive (@internetarchive) September 13, 2021
Daniel A. Gross, at the New Yorker, explains “Increasingly, books are something that libraries do not own but borrow from the corporations that do”:
Steve Potash, the bearded and bespectacled president and C.E.O. of OverDrive, spent the second week of March, 2020, on a business trip to New York City. OverDrive distributes e-books and audiobooks—i.e., “digital content.” In New York, Potash met with two clients: the New York Public Library and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. By then, Potash had already heard what he described to me recently as “heart-wrenching stories” from colleagues in China, about neighborhoods that were shut down owing to the coronavirus. He had an inkling that his business might be in for big changes when, toward the end of the week, on March 13th, the N.Y.P.L. closed down and issued a statement: “The responsible thing to do—and the best way to serve our patrons right now—is to help minimize the spread of COVID-19.” The library added, “We will continue to offer access to e-books.”
The sudden shift to e-books had enormous practical and financial implications, not only for OverDrive but for public libraries across the country. Libraries can buy print books in bulk from any seller that they choose, and, thanks to a legal principle called the first-sale doctrine, they have the right to lend those books to any number of readers free of charge. But the first-sale doctrine does not apply to digital content. For the most part, publishers do not sell their e-books or audiobooks to libraries—they sell digital distribution rights to third-party venders, such as OverDrive, and people like Steve Potash sell lending rights to libraries. These rights often have an expiration date, and they make library e-books “a lot more expensive, in general, than print books,” Michelle Jeske, who oversees Denver’s public-library system, told me. Digital content gives publishers more power over prices, because it allows them to treat libraries differently than they treat other kinds of buyers. Last year, the Denver Public Library increased its digital checkouts by more than sixty per cent, to 2.3 million, and spent about a third of its collections budget on digital content, up from twenty per cent the year before.
There are a handful of popular e-book venders, including Bibliotheca, Hoopla, Axis 360, and the nonprofit Digital Public Library of America. But OverDrive is the largest. It is the company behind the popular app Libby, which, as the Apple App Store puts it, “lets you log in to your local library to access ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines, all for the reasonable price of free.” The vast majority of OverDrive’s earnings come from markups on the digital content that it licenses to libraries and schools, which is to say that these earnings come largely from American taxes. As libraries and schools have transitioned to e-books, the company has skyrocketed in value. Rakuten, the maker of the Kobo e-reader, bought OverDrive for more than four hundred million dollars, in 2015. Last year, it sold the company to K.K.R., the private-equity firm made famous by the 1989 book “Barbarians at the Gate.” The details of the sale were not made public, but Rakuten reported a profit of “about $365.6 million.”
In the first days of the lockdown, the N.Y.P.L. experienced a spike in downloads, which lengthened the wait times for popular books. In response, it limited readers to three checkouts and three waitlist requests at a time, and it shifted almost all of its multimillion-dollar acquisitions budget to digital content. By the end of March, seventy-four per cent of U.S. libraries were reporting that they had expanded their digital offerings in response to coronavirus-related library closures. During a recent interview over Zoom (another digital service that proliferated during the pandemic), Potash recalled that OverDrive quickly redirected about a hundred employees, who would normally have been at trade shows, “to help support and fortify the increase in demand in digital.” He recalled a fellow-executive telling him, “E-books aren’t just ‘a thing’ now—they’re our only thing.”…