Check it Out: The demand for audiobooks

Recently a patron requested an audiobook. After much searching I discovered that the title is not available to Public Libraries. It is owned by Audible, anyone who wants to listen to that story will have to go through them.

By pure coincidence I was asked by my Board of Directors to write this article about e-audiobooks, copyrights and Public Libraries. It is a complex issue that has sparked a lot of discussion. 

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When Public Libraries purchase digital copies of books, we don’t actually own them. In most cases we pay a license fee that will have a series of conditions. For instance we may pay $65 for an audiobook that can be borrowed for a certain period of time or be lent for only a certain number of times. Or the contract might say both with the clause “which ever comes first”.

The prices Libraries pay for digital content is often extremely high. A typical trade paperback costs around $25.00. If protected by a $3 cover it can last a very long time and be borrowed many times over. The same title in digital format will cost a lot more (see $65 price tag above) and some contracts will only allow it to be borrowed 24 times.

More concerning than the pricing issue, is that sometimes titles are simply not available to Public Libraries. In the past years these have included Canada Reads and Giller Prize shortlisted titles.  The reasons for this have to do with complex international copyright laws, technical issues and some publishers and producers just not wanting to share with Public Libraries. 

Meanwhile the demand for digital content from Public Library patrons is rising every year. People really appreciate all the amazing stuff their Library card can get them, from digital stories, to a complete database of car repair manuals, to on-line courses, movies, magazines, and the list goes on. 

The production of audiobooks is a more expensive undertaking that publishing a book, and there are good reasons for costs to be higher.  Producers of audio books point out that Library use makes a heavier cut into audiobook sales, than paper books.

Public Libraries point out that we are an important part of the literary “ecosystem”. We introduce people to new authors and foster the love of reading.  Studies have shown that Library users buy more books than people who don’t use their Public Library.  We also have a responsibility to making resources accessible, and we want to make sure that great Canadian authors are not cut out of the Public Library system.

There is also the issue of royalties for authors. We are fortunate in Canada to have a Public Lending Rights program. This means that authors are paid an annual amount based on how often their books are borrowed from Public Libraries.  This system has not extended to audiobooks yet, although it will be soon.

The fact of the matter is that in situations where an item is not available to Public Library users there is no guarantee that the author is making a bigger cut of the profits.  

If you want to learn more about this issue and actions you can take, check out the Canadian Urban Libraries Council’s campaign about e-audiobooks for Libraries.

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