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Librarians worry e-book pricing might affect people's ability to borrow books

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you borrow an e-book from your local library, the library is actually paying far more for that book than it would pay for a physical book. Librarians are worried that could affect their ability to loan out the books that readers love. Dave Blanchard of our Planet Money team tells us how we got here.

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: You have to understand two things about e-books that make them different from physical books. First, physical books have a shelf life. Michael Blackwell is a librarian in Maryland. The books he sees in the return bin aren't always in great shape.

MICHAEL BLACKWELL: The brand-new book with the coffee stain on it, dog behavior books that come back chewed up or...

BLANCHARD: (Laughter) It didn't work.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Potty training books that you're wondering exactly what is on them.

BLANCHARD: (Laughter) God.

He says most books last 30 to 100 loans or so. But e-books are electronic files. They never wear out. So that's the first difference. The second difference - a physical book can only be lent out to one person at a time. So libraries usually buy multiple copies. But an e-book is just a digital file. Hypothetically, a library could just buy one e-book and then copy and share it infinitely, which starts to seem a little unfair to authors. So they made a deal. Librarians and publishers agreed, let's just pretend e-books are like the physical ones. First, we'll limit the number of people who can borrow an e-book.

BLACKWELL: One person using it at a time the same way that one person would check out a physical book at a time.

BLANCHARD: And second, libraries can't just lend out an e-book infinitely. There's a limit. For example, HarperCollins books can be lent out 26 times. After that, the e-book disappears from the library's catalog, like the chewed-up dog training book would have to be removed from the shelves. That system worked for a while, but in the mid-2010s, a popular app called Libby came along. Libby makes it incredibly easy to get e-books on your phone or tablet. Publishers got scared.

JOHN SARGENT: In the old days, I want to check a book out of the library.

BLANCHARD: John Sargent was CEO of Macmillan through 2020.

SARGENT: I'd drive over there. I find the book. I take it to the front, da, da, da (ph), take it home. And then I'm three-quarters of the way through. My two weeks is up. What am I going to do? I got to take it back the library and check it out again. Oh, there's a waiting list. I can't do that. OK. I'm just going to keep it. And then here comes your library fine.

BLANCHARD: With e-books, there's none of that.

SARGENT: Suddenly, it's free, and it's frictionless.

BLANCHARD: And that frictionlessness scared John. He thought nobody would buy books anymore. And that wouldn't just affect publishers but also the ability of bookstores and authors to survive. So he had an idea about how to slow it down.

SARGENT: Libraries only have so much money. And as long as we kept the prices high enough, they wouldn't have the budget.

BLANCHARD: So Macmillan, along with most other publishers, began to raise the price of e-books for libraries towards 50, 60 bucks a pop. Librarians say they don't have big budgets, and those prices are forcing them to make tough decisions on what books they buy. Michael, the librarian, is now involved with a group that is pushing to pass state laws that would bring the prices of e-books back down. He says it would help make libraries' catalogs more than just the Stephen Kings of the world.

BLACKWELL: We're going to be able to spread out the money over newer authors, over authors who have written an interesting book but not a lot of people have heard of it yet.

BLANCHARD: But so far, none of the laws have gone into effect.

Dave Blanchard, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.