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Calgary Public Library takes aim at publishers for withholding digital, audio titles

If you’ve ever accessed the Calgary Public Library’s digital collection and found it lacking, the library wants you to know they’re trying their best.

The library is taking part in a larger campaign by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council to explain to patrons the trouble they’re sometimes having acquiring e-books and audiobooks for their collections

Anne Marie Fryer, digital resources manager for the Calgary Public Library, said the service keeps growing in popularity with the rise of e-readers and tablets.

In 2007, the first year Calgary offered e-books, they checked out about 10,000. In 2018, they loaned out 1.8 million.

“It’s wonderful to have such a successful service, because we do have lots of people who are interested,” she said.

The problem she and other librarians are noticing is that publishers aren’t always making e-books and audiobooks available in the same way as traditional printed books.

“It’s a tough ecosystem for publishers,” said Fryer. “I think we understand that as well. This is new to them – they’re trying to figure out rights and make sure people are compensated, but it’s a tough ecosystem for libraries too because we’re in a place where we’d like to share what we have.”

Fryer said digital books and audiobooks are lent out on a one-to-one basis. That means just like a physical book, they only let one person have an item at a time. So she and other librarians are confused as to why some publishers are charging a premium for e-books and audiobooks, or sometimes not making them available at all.

“[Patrons] see lots of promotion on TV and then they find out they can’t get the Claire Danes narration of The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, because its just not available to us,” she said. “They won’t even sell it to us.”

Leo MacDonald, senior VP of sales and marketing for Harper Collins Canada, said he can’t speak for all publishers, but with his company, they will make audiobooks available to libraries if they have them.

The problem is, the book publisher doesn’t always have those rights.

“Sometimes the agent will withhold rights to the publisher and sell them off to Audible or elsewhere,” said MacDonald.

He said they do charge libraries more for digital audiobooks as compared with simply buying the physical CD – about double the cost – but they sell them those digital versions in perpetuity, meaning they can lend it out as many times as they want, forever.

He said if a library buys the audio CD version of a book, and a patron loses or damages that CD, there’s nothing they can do.

E-books are slightly different. He said Harper Collins sells the library a license to lend out an ebook 26 times. They charge about the same price a customer would pay for the ebook.

He said the 26 lends is based on a study that showed that’s how many times a physical book can be shared before it needs to be replaced.

MacDonald said the business of publishing is changing, and they feel they are doing the best that they can for libraries.

“Before you had to walk to the library to borrow a book,” he said. “Now nobody has to go to the library. They just do it from home. So without a proper business model, it could spell disaster for a lot of authors and publishers.”

Fryer agrees that the publishing business has an important role to play in keeping libraries successful.

“We need them to stay in business,” she said. “We need people to make creative content.”

She said the Calgary Public Library’s digital collection continues to grow. In 2018, the digital collection made up about 18 per cent of the library’s spending on materials – a budget which tops out at about $7 million.

Not surprisingly, the romance genre is the most popular genre in the digital collections, and Fryer said science fiction is popular as well.

She hopes if patrons don’t see a title they’re looking for – in digital or otherwise – they suggest it via their online account.

“We love it when people give us that kind of information, because it just expands the community,” said Fryer.