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?

While they are sometimes lumped together, the large publishers vary widely in their approaches to selling e-book titles to libraries, and conditions continue to shift as publishers change prices or restrictions and undertake pilots. As of October 14, 2013, this is the status of relations between large publishers and U.S. libraries (additional detail may also be found here):

Hachette announced on May 1, 2013, that it will immediately begin offering all of its e-book titles to libraries simultaneously with print editions and with unlimited single-user-at-a-time circulations. The initial price will be three times the highest-price edition then in print. One year after publication, the purchase price will drop to 1.5 times the highest-price print edition.

HarperCollins has always offered e-book titles to libraries. In February 2011, the company announced that new titles licensed from library e-book vendors would be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.

Macmillan announced on January 24, 2013, that a small group of its e-book titles would be available for the first time to libraries before the end of March 2013. Working with multiple distributors, Macmillan offers over 1,200 backlist e-books from its Minotaur Books mystery and crime fiction imprint. Once purchased by a library, the titles will be available to them to lend for two years or 52 lends, whichever comes first. In August 2013, the company added Entangled Publishing titles to its e-lending pilot. Among their most popular e-book titles still denied to U.S. libraries are: “Killing Kennedy” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard and “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel.

Penguin Random House’s models of working with libraries right now maintain pre-merger characteristics. Penguin’s titles currently are available to libraries with a one-year expiration date on e-books licensed to libraries, and library pricing is similar to what is offered to individual consumers.

Like HarperCollins, Random House always offered its e-book titles to libraries. In March 2012, the company dramatically increased prices for libraries beyond what individual consumers pay. Random House offers perpetual licenses to libraries. 

Simon & Schuster announced on April 15, 2013, that it would begin a one-year pilot with New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library. Simon & Schuster is providing access to all of its titles for one year, using 3M as the distributor for New York and Brooklyn and Baker & Taylor for Queens. Among their most popular e-book titles denied to most U.S. libraries are: “Bruce” by Peter Ames Carlin and “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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 10.14.13