The 'Other' E-Book Pricing Problem

E-reader digital tablet sitting next to a stack of traditional hardcover books on the floor.
E-reader digital tablet sitting next to a stack of traditional hardcover books on the floor.

While the e-book world takes a minute to digest the court ruling finding Apple conspired with book publishers to jack up the price of e-books to consumers, it's worth noting that there is another e-book pricing battle going on.

Consumers are the ultimate victims here, also, but those most directly affected are public libraries. Some book publishers don't lease e-books to libraries at all, depriving library customers of versions of popular best-sellers. Others set the lease rates exorbitantly high, squeezing the already squeezed library budget.

The American Library Association (ALA), and particularly former President Maureen Sullivan, have raised the issue loudly and persistently, but the publishers haven't been terribly responsive. Now, state and local governments are just starting to become involved on behalf of their libraries and the library patrons.

Connecticut appears to be the first state to go on record as recognizing the problem, while Montgomery County, Md., is poised to become the first local government to weigh in. Montgomery County Council Vice President Craig Rice, who is the lead member for libraries, introduced a resolution at the Council's July 16 meeting.urging equitable access to e-books for libraries. In his comments, Rice said it was "extremely important for us to highlight" e-book access as an important issue for libraries and library users.

Councilmember George Leventhal, who heads the committee which oversees libraries, agreed, saying the price difference between costs of e-books to libraries and to consumers was "very striking." Seven of the nine Council members have signed onto the resolution. Final action is expected July 23.

In Connecticut, Gov. Dan Malloy (D) on June 6 signed a bill requiring the state attorney general and the state librarian to conduct a study on the availability of e-books to public library customers. The study will have a broad mandate, taking in such topics as surveying current practices used by publishers and distributors (companies like Overdrive or Baker & Taylor, which supply the software to make the e-books available to libraries), to determine if there are any problems with those practices and if so, what to do about them.

The requirement of a study was the last compromise in the legislative process, which started out with a bill by State Rep. Brian Sear (D) "to require publishers of electronic books to offer such books for sale to public and academic libraries at the same rates as offered to the general public." That bill would mean the publishers couldn't charge the public $12.99 for an e-book and charge libraries $85 for the same e-book, which is the practice now.

Richard Conroy, head of the Connecticut Library Association, (CLA) said he got interested in a legislative campaign when Random House raised the prices on e-books for the 26 libraries in the south central part of the state. "The tripling of prices was the last straw," Conroy said in an interview, adding that CLA lobbyist Bob Shea said there should be some way to pass legislation to "hold the publishers feet to the fire." State Rep. Brian Sear (D), whose wife worked for the Connecticut Library Consortium, agreed to sponsor a bill.

The first version of the bill required publishers to "offer e-books for sale to public and academic libraries at the same rates as offered to the general public." That bill got the attention of publishers, who fought the bill in the statehouse and carried their complaints to Connecticut legislators in Congress. Conroy said the publishers calls the bill unconstitutional, said it abridged their First Amendment rights and generally "raised a big stink." The publisher team was formidable -- the biggest print publishers, plus Apple and Amazon. Even with that lineup opposing it, the bill gained momentum and cosponsors.

Conroy said he plans to keep working on the issue, and that he hoped the Connecticut bill could be a model for other states. That's a great idea. States should study the pricing of e-books, and pass on to Congress and Federal agencies their findings. Localities should speak up for their library users. And Congress should ask book publishers when they will recognize the harm being done to library budgets and to library users through discriminatory pricing.