Libraries say they find it difficult to acquire e-books for their users because of a restrictive policy on the part of book publishers.
That is one of the reasons only 12 percent of the people who read e-books have borrowed one from their library in the past year, according to a national study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
The survey also showed that only 22 percent of people are even aware that e-books are available free at libraries, despite the fact that roughly three out of four public libraries offer e-books.
“I’d like to think that Wichitans are more informed than that,” said Jennifer Heinicke, special-projects librarian at the Wichita Public Library. “We’ve had a lot of demand for our e-books, and we get questions all the time, so I think that number is a little higher for Wichita.”
More than 10,000 e-books have been checked out from the Wichita Public Library since the beginning of the year. The number is small compared with the more than 660,000 traditional books that circulated in the same period.
The most popular e-books are often the titles that sell the best in paper versions as well.
“The hot book this year is ‘50 Shades of Grey,’” Heinicke said. “You’ll find that that’s the popular book on our e-book site, too.”
More than half of the people interviewed in the Pew study said that at some point they wanted to borrow an e-book that the library didn’t carry. A similar percentage discovered there was a waiting list for the book. And almost 20 percent of e-book borrowers said that an e-book they were interested in was not compatible with their reading device.
One of the reasons that e-books are less accessible to library patrons is that several major publishers don’t offer them, said Cynthia Berner Harris, director of libraries at the Wichita Public Library.
“It has to do with the business model and with the fact that when a publisher will sell us a paper book, eventually the book wears out and it needs to be replaced,” Harris said. “With the digital edition, that wearing out doesn’t happen.”
Publishers are struggling to find a business model for selling e-books to libraries. In some cases, that means not making the e-books available.
The publishing group Penguin recently stopped selling e-books to libraries, joining other major publishing houses such as Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Hachette, according to ebooksforlibraries.com. The website was set up by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in an attempt to convince major publishers to start selling e-books to libraries.
HarperCollins uses a different business model, which sets the check-out limit for each book to 26, after which the library has to buy the e-book again. And Random House recently raised prices for e-books to a level to which they became unaffordable for Wichita public libraries, Heinicke said.
For example, the Random House best seller “A Dance With Dragons” by George R.R. Martin was offered to University City library in Missouri at $19.95 for a hardcover, but a single e-book cost $85.
The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library is gathering signatures for an online petition that aims to persuade major publishing houses to make e-books available to libraries. The petition has so far gathered more than 9,500 signatures from around the world. The goal is 10,000 signatures.
The Pew phone survey was conducted among 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older from Nov. 16-Dec. 21, 2011. The survey has a margin of error of 2 percentage points. More information on the 80-page report is at pewinternet.org.
Contributing: Jane Henderson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch