Frequently asked questions regarding e-books and U.S. libraries

Who are the “Big Six” and why are they called that?

The Big Six publishers became the Big Five on July 1, 2013, when the Penguin Random House merger was completed. The publishers are: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. Together these companies control roughly two-thirds of the U.S. consumer book publishing market.

What is the status of these major publishers selling to libraries?

See the lending terms of the "Big Five" publishing groups (PDF) for more.

What about other publishers? Do they restrict sales and/or mark up costs to libraries, too?

Licensing terms of e-books to libraries vary among other publishers. In fact, hundreds of publishers of e-books have embraced the opportunity to create new sales and reach readers through our nation’s libraries. One recent innovation allows library patrons to immediately purchase an e-book if the library doesn’t have a copy or if there is a wait list they would like to avoid. This offers a win-win relationship for both publishers and library users since recent research from the Pew Internet Project tells us that library users are more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library.

Many small and independent publishers have actively partnered with libraries, such as those documented by Evoke Colorado:

Why are e-books treated differently than print books?

Print books are purchased as physical copies that the library owns.  Rights holders typically license—rather than sell—access to digital resources.

Digital music and online journals represent examples of this shift from the last few decades; e-books are the latest form of content to make this transition. As licenses are contracts, libraries receive the rights articulated in the agreements. The usual e-book license with a publisher or distributor often constrains or altogether prohibits libraries from archiving and preserving content, making accommodations for people with disabilities, ensuring patron privacy, receiving donations of e-books, or selling e-books that libraries do not wish to retain.

Libraries, however, can and should negotiate for the most favorable contract possible based on a strategic analysis of licensing terms. The ALA’s Digital Content & Libraries Working Group has developed several documents that may be helpful in this assessment.

Why does library lending matter when so many people are able to buy what they want?

America’s libraries have always provided unfettered, no-fee access to reading materials (no matter the format), which fosters educational opportunity for all. To deny library patrons access to e-books that are available to consumers—and which libraries are eager to purchase or license on their behalf—is discriminatory.

Society benefits from library book lending because it:

  • encourages experimentation with new authors, topics, and genres. Library lending promotes literacy, creativity, and innovation—all critical for being competitive in the global knowledge economy. This experimentation also stimulates the market of books.
  • provides access to books to people who cannot afford to purchase them. Access to books should be available to everyone regardless of financial or other special circumstances.
  • promotes substantive pursuits that necessitate access to diverse materials, including those that may not be popular bestsellers. Education, research and other projects may depend on access to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of books. 
  • is complemented by library support for digital literacy. The technologies, formats, and systems associated with e-books are changing rapidly. Libraries help people develop the skills necessary to make efficient and effective use of e-books as a technology and service.
  • reflects library values that support our nation’s readers.  Libraries strive to ensure that personally identifiable reader information, along with reading activities, remain private.

What about authors? What do they think about selling e-books to libraries?

Like publishers, authors have a wide range of opinions related to selling e-books to libraries. In June 2013, several major authors, though, announced they stand with libraries as part of a new effort called Authors for Library Ebooks. In less than a month, dozens of authors had joined Cory Doctorow, Ursula Le Guin and Jodi Picoult in the initiative.

Libraries help authors through:

  • Exposure. Libraries help people find authors. Readers discover new authors, topics, and genres in our libraries. Libraries help authors get noticed: we host author events; we feature books at book clubs; and we spotlight titles on our websites.
  • Sales. Research shows that library loans encourage people to buy books. Additionally, many libraries provide an option for people to click and “buy-it-now” from our websites.
  • Respect. Libraries honor authors’ work. We protect copyright, and we pay for what we use. We want authors to keep writing, and make a living at it.
  • Love of reading. Libraries help grow readers – and writers.


Last revised 10.3.14