The Challenges of Ebook Selection

As you browse the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library’s ebook collection, there are a few things to keep in mind. Ebook and digital audiobook purchases work differently than purchases for print versions. Besides cost and other collection development criteria, the Library must also deal with a variety of restrictions placed on ebooks and digital audiobooks by publishers and authors.

Not all books printed will be made available in ebook or digital audiobook format, even if they are bestsellers, award winners, or by popular authors.  In addition, many publishers will not sell ebooks and digital audiobooks to libraries.  This whole process makes creating a robust, diverse ebook collection frustrating for the Library and most importantly for you, the Library’s customers.

Here is why your favorite author’s new book might not be available through the Library’s OverDrive ebook service.

The Library Can’t Buy Them

If your favorite author or title is not in the Library’s ebook collection, it may because we just can’t buy it!

The immutable nature of ebooks and outdated business models has created a situation in which three of the six largest publishers will not sell their ebook content to libraries. That’s right, many of the same ebooks you can buy right now through Amazon or Barnes & Noble cannot be bought by the Library. Publishers sell libraries print copies and physical audiobooks without any hesitation, but publishers are treating ebooks differently.

The library community and professional organizations are working with ebook vendors, such as OverDrive and 3M, to convince publishers that just as libraries have been good for physical books, libraries are important for the future of ebooks. Until publishers realize that libraries are an important component of ebook distribution and promotion, library ebook collections will be limited.

They Cost Libraries More

That $2.99 ebook on Amazon may cost the Library $29.99!

Publishers charge libraries more for ebooks than other consumers. Even older ebook titles can cost libraries as much as a hardcover paper edition. These higher costs mean the Library can only afford to buy a limited number of copies, which means large hold lists and longer wait times.

Therefore, the Library’s ebook selectors must weigh the benefits of a larger ebook collection with more variety, but with more holds per book, versus a collection with fewer titles, but shorter hold lists.  It’s not an easy balance to manage and as the Library continues to grow its ebook collection, the balance will get better.

Not All Books Become Ebooks

Some books haven’t been made into ebooks!

Perhaps the most famous example of a series that is not available in ebook format is the Harry Potter books. For a variety of reasons, author J.K. Rowlings decided not to allow her publisher to create ebook versions of her books. Instead, she is creating her own website to sell and distribute the novels in ebook format. Therefore, even if the publisher wanted to sell libraries the Harry Potter books as ebooks, they cannot because Rowlings won’t allow it.

Rowlings’ case is an exception, and most new fiction titles are being released in ebook formats. However, new nonfiction, surprise bestsellers, older novels, and even classics may take some time to come out in ebook format. Just like the switch from VHS to DVD with movies, publishers decide which books are made into ebooks based on how well the publishers think the ebooks will sell.

If you don’t see an older title in the Library’s ebook collection it might be because it hasn’t been converted to an ebook format yet.

So What’s It All Mean?

In the short term, having limited access to ebook selections is merely annoying and frustrating. However, the Library and our partners across the country are working with publishers to develop new business models, and in the future you can expect that library ebook collections will complement its print collections.

In the meantime, the Library’s selection team is working hard to put together a great collection of ebooks for you to enjoy. Go to the Library’s ebook service at and get started finding your next free ebook to read.

Jeff Tate is a former employee and wrote about digital content such as ebooks, databases and other online services.

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