Gizmodo: “There are currently 342 potential borrowers waiting for 197 digital copies of Ronan Farrow’s investigative thriller Catch and Kill at the Los Angeles Public Library. “It’ll take months for that ebook to become available,” I mutter to myself as I do my usual dance: searching the LAPL’s ebook shelves for titles on my reading list. I place a hold anyway. Then I search for a book that’s no longer the topic of watercooler conversations: Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. Only four borrowers in line for 93 copies. This book was major back in 2017, with dozens of digital copies to prove it, but I’m reaping the benefits of being three years late. I’ll be able to download this book to my Kindle in less than a week, I bet.
But why can only one person borrow one copy of an ebook at a time? Why are the waits so damn interminable? Well, it might not surprise you at all to learn that ebook lending is controversial in certain circles: circles of people who like to make money selling ebooks. Publishers impose rules on libraries that limit how many people can check out an ebook, and for how long a library can even offer that ebook on its shelves, because free, easily available ebooks could potentially damage their bottom lines. Libraries are handcuffed by two-year ebook licenses that cost way more than you and I pay to own an ebook outright forever. Ebooks could theoretically circulate throughout public library systems forever, preserving books that could otherwise disappear when they go out of print—after all, ebooks can’t get damaged or lost. And multiple library-goers could technically check out one ebook simultaneously if publishers allowed. But the Big Five have contracts in place that limit ebook availability with high prices—much higher than regular folks pay per ebook—and short-term licenses. The publishers don’t walk in and demand librarians hand over the ebooks or pay up, but they do just…disappear….”