For more than a decade, the library e-book market in the U.S. has been a contentious balancing act, with librarians long complaining of high, unsustainable prices and license restrictions, and publishers wary of the impact of digital lending on their consumer sales. But during the pandemic, library e-book lending surged—and so too did consumer sales. Now what?

In 2021, vendors in the digital library space all reported significant jumps in their digital circulation. In a January press release, leading vendor OverDrive announced that digital lends surpassed the half a billion mark for the first time, a 16% jump over 2020. And while the pace of growth has understandably cooled since the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, when libraries, schools, and bookstores were forced to close their doors, librarians say the demand for digital content has hit a new level and isn’t expected to come down.

“At this point I don’t expect to see the kind of large gains in digital demand we saw during the pandemic, but demand is going to continue to grow slowly,” says Michael Blackwell, director of the St. Mary’s County Public Library in Maryland, during a panel at the 2022 U.S. Book Show in May. In fact, librarians say anecdotal evidence suggests that many people who were forced to experiment with digital reading during the pandemic found the digital reading experience a good one, and will continue to check out e-books. “We can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Blackwell says. “Now that people know those titles are there, they are going to want to continue to have access to them.”

And that’s a good thing, says Kelvin Watson, executive director of the Las Vegas–Clark County Library District. “Within my library, e-book usage continues to grow as we don’t have as many people coming back into our libraries as before the pandemic,” Watson notes, adding that, given that reality, he’s been encouraging the use of the library’s digital resources in the community. “We want to increase the number of users and readers, so we’re taking advantage of the technology, which is really transforming the world around us, not just libraries.”

Blackwell acknowledges that the demand for digital library content “went crazy” during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. However, even with digital demand falling by about a third in the first half of 2022 from the teeth of the pandemic years, demand in Maryland libraries is still up about 55% over the prepandemic years of 2018 and 2019. The question now is: can libraries and publishers work together to meet this leveled-up digital demand?

During the height of the pandemic, a number of publishers relaxed terms and prices for library e-books, helping libraries meet digital demand. But as pandemic restrictions have eased and libraries, schools, and business have gotten back to some version of normal, budgets are now strained while digital prices are rising again, and librarians say they don’t know how they will meet the increased digital demand.

The rising cost pressure is already evident, says Carmi Parker, ILS administrator at the Whatcom County (Wash.) Library System and committee member for the Washington Digital Library Consortium, which manages the digital catalogs of some 45 libraries statewide. At the U.S. Book Show, Parker noted that while total circulation for her consortium was also down from the pandemic highs through the first part of 2022, costs during the same period are up 30%. Furthermore, one notable factor that may be contributing to these rising costs: a sharp spike in “replacement” copies, a trend that became noticeable after three major publishers in 2018 and 2019 stopped offering perpetual access in favor of two-year metered licenses.

Blackwell says he has noticed the same trend: Maryland libraries are spending 25% more on replacement copies in the first part of 2022. Funds, Blackwell notes, that could and should be going to new books—print and digital—and to new authors and more diverse collections.

Meanwhile, librarians are also quick to point out that the surge in digital library lending has coincided with a sharp rise in consumer sales. While librarians and vendors say digital circulation rose by as much as 30%–40% during 2020 and 2021, the AAP’s recently released final statistics show that trade book sales rose 6.1% in 2020 and jumped 11.6% in 2021. Total sales for all publishing sectors in 2021 hit $29.33 billion—a major improvement over the previous four years, when annual sales ranged between $25 billion and $26 billion.

That kind of performance, librarians say, should prove that digital library lending is not the drag on publishers’ sales that some publishing leaders believe it is, and in fact, suggests that the marketing and discoverability libraries provide drive sales, as librarians have long maintained. With a slowing postpandemic economy, high inflation, fears of a global recession, and—most crucially—a widely acknowledged need for broader, more diverse collections in libraries and bookstores, librarians say now is time for publishers to reevaluate their traditional approaches to the digital library market.

“One of the things that has always surprised me is the level of fear among traditional publishers,” Parker says. “I don’t think there is nearly as much to fear from digital content in libraries as they seem to think. And I would invite publishers to take this opportunity to inspect very, very closely what their fears are, and how their fears are driving them.”

Andrew Richard Albanese is senior writer at Publishers Weekly.

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