E-Books and Democracy




WRESTLING with my newspaper on the subway recently, I noticed the woman next to me reading a book on her smartphone. “That has to hurt your eyes,” I commented.  Not missing a beat, she replied, in true New York style, “My font is bigger than yours.” She was right.

The information revolution raises profound questions about the future of books, reading and libraries. While publishers have been nimble about marketing e-books to consumers, until very recently they’ve been mostly unwilling to sell e-books to libraries to lend, fearful that doing so would hurt their business, which is under considerable pressure.

Negotiations between the nation’s libraries and the Big Six publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House and Simon & Schuster, which publish roughly two-thirds of the books in America — have gone in fits and starts. Today Hachette, which had been a holdout, is joining the others in announcing that it will make e-books available to public libraries. This is a big step, as it represents, for the first time, a consensus among the Big Six, at least in principle, that their e-books should be made available to library users.

E-book readership is rising much faster than readership of print books; digital books could soon be the most popular book format. Readership of our e-books soared 168 percent from 2011 to 2012; print circulation, while much larger, remained constant.

Over a quarter of New York City’s 8.2 million residents borrow books from the city’s three public library systems. For those who cannot afford to buy downloads, digital books from libraries are essential to improving literacy, civic engagement and the technological facility necessary for economic success.

The Great Recession triggered a nationwide surge in library usage. Total circulation at the New York Public Library’s 87 neighborhood branches — in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — has risen 44 percent since 2008.

Libraries remain essential repositories of books, periodicals and research collections, but they are also places to check e-mail and browse the Web — a third of New Yorkers lack home broadband — and to learn computer skills, casino seek jobs and get information about government benefits. At a time of painful austerity and rising inequality, we are raising money to rapidly expand English-language classes, computer training and after-school programs. Along with our counterparts in Brooklyn and Queens, we are supplementing school libraries by delivering print books directly to schools.

E-books might not seem like a priority given those daunting tasks — but as the nature of reading changes, access to these books is essential for libraries to remain vital. The New York Public Library helped lead talks with the publishers over e-books. Before today’s breakthrough, we had some false starts. While HarperCollins, in 2003, was the first to provide access, after the downturn, it limited the number of times each e-book could be lent, while Hachette decided to no longer sell new e-books to libraries, and Penguin, which had agreed to do so, said it might back out. To their credit, the publishers have now each come around.

Last September, Penguin agreed to make its e-books available to patrons at the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library, but with a six-month lag for new titles. Penguin recently agreed to release e-books to libraries at the same time its hardcovers came out. In April, Simon & Schuster agreed to sell e-books to the city’s libraries. Today’s announcement by Hachette (whose imprints include Little, Brown) is the capstone of that process.

Many issues still need to be sorted out. Five of the Big Six are making their entire e-book inventory available to us to choose from, while Macmillan is offering only a limited selection. HarperCollins allows us to lend each e-book we acquire only 26 times per title; Penguin and Simon & Schuster offer one-year licenses; and Random House sells licenses without time limits but charges much more per license. (In all cases, an e-book can be borrowed by only one patron at a time.) Prices charged to libraries vary widely according to the kind of license agreement, and we hope they will be reduced as demand increases.

Selection remains limited. The New York Public Library had 100,000 copies of 37,000 digital titles in circulation last year, compared with 6.5 million copies in circulation of 1 million print titles. Just as libraries decide which physical books to purchase and how many of each, we now will be deciding the same for e-books. We also have to educate patrons that they can download library e-books anywhere and on any device. Most Americans don’t even know that libraries offer e-books, according to national surveys.

We have every interest in seeing that publishers remain sustainable enterprises and that authors are paid fairly for their work. But those economic imperatives must be considered alongside the role of libraries in a democratic society. The challenge is to ensure that the information revolution provides more, not less, access for the public — including that subway rider.

Anthony W. Marx is the president of the New York Public Library.