Mary in the Library: Purchasing Digital Materials for My Library's YA Collection

If you guys read my first Mary in the Library post (it was a long while ago!), you'll know that one of the duties I have at the library is purchasing ebooks for the YA collection. Apparently many of my friends on Twitter did not realize that because last year when I was working on my next ebook order at the library, I tweeted this:
and I received several replies of concern for my personal budget. I may spend a lot of money on books, but I personally am not going to blow over $2,000 in one go! This happened again last week when I was talking about receiving a supplemental budget at the end of my library's fiscal year.

There were a few questions about why ebooks for libraries are so expensive and some about the process, and voila! A post was born! Just a head's up: this post is LONG.

Disclaimer 1: I am not a librarian as I do not have a degree in library science. I am a senior library assistant, which is a paraprofessional position one step below librarian in my system. This post is based on 4 years of purchasing experience for three different platforms.

Disclaimer 2: As always, since I haven't worked at another system, the only library I can speak specifics about is my own. Also, while the process for purchasing physical items is similar, I don't have experience with that so I'm just going to be talking about digital materials.

Disclaimer 3: Ebooks and digital audiobooks are two separate entities, and to keep this post from being completely massive, I'm going to primarily focus on ebooks.

The Basics of Digital Purchasing:
Where do libraries buy books from? 
Most* libraries don't order from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Instead, we purchase through a book distributor. My library has a contract with Baker & Taylor, which means our patrons read ebooks via the Axis 360 app, but other libraries may use OverdriveIngram, or another distributor (to my knowledge, Baker & Taylor, which is owned by Follett, and Ingram are the largest and most commonly used). There are a lot of good reasons to use a distributor like these, most of which is because they know their customers are libraries, not individual consumers, so our materials arrive processed & ready to enter our collection (which means they have that plastic library cover and call numbers on the side). I believe B&T also integrates my system's purchases directly into our catalog so our Tech Services staff don't have to spend all their time doing that manually. 

*A friend of mine works at a small community college library, and they do purchase from Amazon. My system is comprised of four libraries so we require a bit more help with our collection. Plus, city government = legal contracts for EVERYTHING.

How do I purchase ebooks/digital audiobooks? 
Just like on any shopping site, I build a shopping cart! I'm given a budget for the entire fiscal year, but I like to order monthly. This gives patrons a little bit of time to place holds on items, but they don't have to wait too long before release (this is especially good since we limit how many holds patrons can have). It also ensures that we constantly have new, fresh titles to offer our patrons. So I build separate ebook & digital audiobook carts—several months in advance. I already have carts  created through the end of 2018—and each month, I send both the audio & ebook carts to our Tech Services team to purchase the titles and add them to our catalog.

This past year my library migrated from offering four ebook services—Overdrive, Axis 360, 3M/Cloud Library, and Hoopla—to two: Axis and Hoopla. This means instead of having to purchase  ebooks from 3 vendors and audiobooks from 1, I now only have to purchase from one vendor.

Twitter question: @xsophiehoughton asked: 
How do you decide which recommendations to buy for the library? 
This is what collection development is. Many library systems have strict rules about what can or can't be added to their collection. Some systems require books to have a certain number of professional reviews, like from Kirkus or SLJ or Voya, etc. Some systems prioritize bestsellers. Some systems prioritize patron requests above all else. Here's my library's official policy:

My library very carefully picks selectors, people with expertise in a certain field, and we typically use a mix of reviews, bestsellers, circulation stats (does this author's previous works check out frequently?), series info (we ALWAYS try to buy an entire series BUT KEEP IN MIND NOT EVERY BOOK IS ALWAYS AVAILABLE IN EVERY FORMAT), patron requests, and other miscellaneous info (Has it been adapted into a movie? Was it written by a celebrity? It is receiving a lot of buzz? etc). There are three of us who order YA fiction, and there are another two who do nonfiction and graphic novels/manga.

I use, Goodreads, and book blogs for release dates (they're not infallible, but I can always double check the records on Baker & Taylor) and double check circ stats and item format before I order. Because my budget is not limitless, I sometimes don't purchase entire series if the first book isn't in our ebook collection. If it's 2+ years old and we have plenty of physical copies but no digital, I probably won't purchase that book or series over new items UNLESS it's an award-winner or sudden bestseller (which, it might be, if it's being adapted into a movie or tv series).

Also, here's where I should point out that there are certain books I can't buy. Not that I won't buy. I can't. Last year (when I first started drafting this post), I couldn't buy any digital copies of Sky Pony books because they weren't available on Axis (my guess is because they are distributed by a subsidiary of Ingram and had some sort of contract that excluded Baker & Taylor). That has since changed. But I'm still not going to go back and buy a lot of those older titles; I'll just purchase things as they release going forward.

Many of you now know about Tor's 4 month library embargo.  As far as I can tell, this only affect Tor's adult imprints. I have not seen a change—so far—for Tor Teen books. But I used to see a 6 month wait before I could purchase Disney titles. Sometimes Soucebooks titles haven't been available at release day, and sometimes Bloomsbury books don't show up until release month. It's frustrating, but I'm limited by the contracts that publishers have with the distributors. It's even a miracle that I can even buy as many publishers as I can from Baker & Taylor/Axis 360 because when ebooks initially hit the market, many publishers had exclusive contracts with certain distributors so that if you wanted to buy titles from Random House, Penguin, Harper, Macmillan, Bloomsbury, Little Brown, Disney, AND Simon & Schuster, you'd have to provide several different services. Thankfully, those initial contracts seem to be in the process of expiring or restructuring so that more books by more publishers are available on more platforms. But keep in mind, these are the big traditional publishers. Indie & self-pub are their own ballgame, and I admit I don't know much about how it works for a self-pubbed book to be available from a library distributor. But many are not, and that means I can't buy them, end of discussion.

Pricing & Licensing
How much does it cost for a library to buy ebooks & e-audiobooks? 
This is a two-part question. First of all, libraries pay each service a flat service fee. Think of this as your basic cable subscription fee. We pay these companies (Overdrive, Axis, etc) to use their service, except that a library's reach is in the tens of thousands so our subscription fee is not $9.99 per month. More like $5,000+ per year, depending on the company. This is why your library may get rid of one digital service in favor of another. THESE SERVICES ARE EXPENSIVE TO USE. Then on top of that, we have to purchase the items individually (not on Hoopla though [update July 2019: this is changing]).

How much are the items? 
New ebooks will run me anywhere from $4.99 to $60. That $2500 cart from last year? It contained only one copy each of 66 individual titles. Why such a huge discrepancy? Depends on the publisher and it depends on the circulation limit for the purchased item.

Library ebooks have circulation limits??? 
Yep. Every ebook is allowed ONE USER at a time. Like the basic Netflix/Hulu subscriptions are usually one device can watch at a time. Because your subscription covers one license for one user. Beyond that, when I buy an ebook, depending on the publisher, I might be buying one copy of that ebook outright or I might be buying a finite number of reads or I might be buying a timed license. This why library ebooks are so expensive, and why I had $2500 worth of products in my cart. From favorite to least favorite, here are the kinds of ebook licenses libraries can purchase:

One copy/one user (OC/OU) aka perpetual access: I buy this item outright, and we keep it forever. This one is usually my favorite because I don't have to purchase this title more than once unless it's crazy popular, but even then, I usually don't. Pricing for these licenses differs depending on the publisher so sometimes I actually prefer the next type of license.

26 circulations: My second favorite because we keep this item however long it takes to be read 26 times (as most libraries allow a 2 week check out, theoretically, this is supposed to last one year, but it's usually longer in my system). After all licenses are used, I can decide if the collection needs it again or if it's an older title, I can afford to let it go because physical copies are readily available.

2 years: Frustrating that these titles will disappear whether they're being read or not, but at least after 2 years, these titles are less likely to require repurchasing.

52 circs/2 years (whichever comes first): This option is frustrating because the books are way more expensive than the 26 circ licenses, AND I will definitely need to repurchase after 2 years (most of these titles are collection must-haves, unfortunately). The sucky thing is that they never get up to 52 circs in 2 years, but I have to repurchase them anyway.

1 year: Fucking one year licenses PISS ME THE FUCK OFF because after one year, I probably should buy another copy since it's still in people's minds, but when I have to make a decision between repurchasing a title we already have and buying something new, sorry, year-old titles, but I'm probably picking the new one unless you're part of a series or crazy popular. Your publisher needs to make some changes.

Okay, but really: how much are the books? 
You just wanna know who's charging what for their books, don't you? *smirks* A publisher by publisher breakdown:
Big Pubs
Bloomsbury: Front list titles are $42 or $45. Backlist are $27 or $30. Novellas are $6. Perpeptual access license (aka keep it forever). Spendy price, but once I buy a SJM book, I don't need to repurchase.

Disney: Front list are $17.99 for 26 check-outs (circs); backlist are $9.99. 26 check-outs (circs).

Harper Collins/Harlequin: Front list are $16.99-$18.99 for 26 circs; backlist are $6.99 or $9.99. Some books like The Selection series, I've needed to buy extra copies or replacements, while others stick around for a good long time.

Little Brown (Hachette): It was $53, but now prices have risen mostly to $57 for most titles and $60 for big titles like Laini Taylor's. No difference between front and backlist. Perpetual access. Update July 2019: Hachette is moving to a "cheaper" 2 year metered access model.

Macmillan: Front list $60, back list $40. Novellas: also $60 or $40 depending on how old it is. 2 year/52 circ license. Ah, Mac. You frustrating unicorn, you. Considering Marissa Meyer and Leigh Bardugo are cornerstones of Macmillan's catalogs, I'm going to be repurchasing TLC and the Grisha books for a long while yet, and that's really frustrating. Sure, the license works out to $20 or $30 per year, but still. It's maddening. And no, I never buy the novellas. That pricing is ABSURD for a book that's 60 pages or so. It's also frustrating because by the time book 3 in a series releases, I need to repurchase book 1, usually in the same month (so bye bye budget), AND when I eventually stop purchasing the series, the books won't expire at the same time, which means I'm going to end up with incomplete series. And very few things piss off library patrons more than incomplete series.

Penguin/Random House: Front list used to be $53.97, but it went up to $56.97-$59.97 in the last year, and it's a perpetual access license (keep it forever). Backlist titles are either $29.97 or $37.97, and novellas are about $8.97 (yes. For a novella. But that's not the worst novella price). This is a relatively new change. Penguin used to be about $17 per ebook per year (1 year license), but a few years ago, Penguin adopted Random's licensing after their merger. It's annoying that they're so expensive, but at least I don't have to constantly repurchase John Green, Marie Lu, Nicola Yoon, Sarah Dessen, Richelle Mead, etc every year.

Unfortunately for me, as of October 1, they're changing from the perpetual access model to a "cheaper" metered access model. "Cheaper is great!" you say. Well I say FUCK THIS CHANGE. Because according to the PW article, the copies will still cost me up to $45 & at some point, they'll disappear. Uh, why would I want disappearing books when I could pay $11 more and keep them forever? This is a stupid change.

Also, this is a huge problem for series. My library owns all three of Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes books forever. When Ember 4 releases, it won't have a perpetual license and will keep disappearing. Same with Superman: Dawnbreaker, the last book in the DC Icons series.

Scholastic: Front list $17.99, back list $9.99. 2 year license.

Simon & Schuster: Front list $17.99 or $18.99, backlist $15.99. Novellas $4.99. 1 year license. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Well, when you consider Cassie Clare has two backlist TDA title, six backlist TMI titles, three backlist TID, and three anthologies that make up one massive series, if I repurchased every single Shadowhunter Chronicles title, I'd be spending over $200 just to re-up her books this year. Next year, that would go up to nearly $230 and so on and so forth. I simply can't afford to use that much of my budget buying old books. Update July 2019: S&S is changing to a more expensive 2 year metered access model. 

Small & Indie Press
I'm not going to go through every single one, but small press is hit or miss because sometimes you can't find what you want/need, but what you CAN find is always available cheaply and almost always with a perpetual access license. Here's a good mix of the main ones. All of these allow perpetual access.

Abrams/Amulet: Front: $15.54, back: $8.99.

Albert Whitman: Front: $9.99, back: $7.99.

Algonguin: Front: $18.99, back: $10.99.

HMH: Front: $17.99, back: $9.99.

Quirk: Front: $18.99, back: $10.99.Those librarians who try to purchase all series (like me) are going to be disappointed when they realize Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine titles with Quirk are $10.99 while book 4 of the series is with Penguin and is currently priced at $65 (I'm sure it'll change when their new system goes in place in a month).

Sky Pony: Front: $16.99, back: $9:99.

Soho: Front: $18.99, back: $10.99.

Sourcebooks: There are some discrepancies here so I think they've changed their prices a bit. Front is somewhere around $27.99/$28.99 and backlist is $7.99 and $15.99.

You can see that with these prices, even healthy budgets like mine are not healthy enough to purchase everything. Sadly, because of the price and time limitations, I am automatically less likely to purchase books from Macmillan and Simon & Schuster than any other publisher, even indie publishers, because of either price or the need for constant repurchasing. As much as I want to, I can't purchase every single title in ebook.

The good news here is that I don't think I have to. I know that every reader out there believes that if you own a physical book, you should automatically own the words digitally as well. Maybe you're right. I've heard a lot of talk about physical books being sold with an access code to purchase the ebook at a discount, and Audible offers whispersync where you can get the digital audio at a discount if you own the kindle ebook.  But publishing hasn't made that change yet because it's a business and different formats of books require extra people and extra work and that means extra cost. Ebooks aren't just the words from the physical copy typed out. There are people who specifically format those files to make them more booklike. And with audio, you have to pay for narrators and producers and sound effects and maybe studio time(?). But that's mostly a discussion for another day.

For now, I don't think libraries' digital collections have to be an exact replica of the physical one. Think of all the older physical books in existence who were around before digital. Think of older patrons who aren't interested in digital. Think about books that aren't available in one format or another. I may not be able to buy every Swoon Reads title digitally because it's not worth it to pay $60 for so many books that will disappear in 2 years. But my coworkers who buy our hardcover and paperback YA CAN buy all those books. We actually buy our hardcovers and paperbacks in separate orders just so someone can concentrate on buying paperback exclusive releases or catching books in paperback that maybe we couldn't grab during their hardcover release. Sometimes I buy ebooks that I know we can't get in physical. We work as a team to make sure our YA collection *as a whole* is healthy and well-maintained. That includes our hardcover and paperback fiction, nonfiction, manga and graphic novels, audio cds, audio playaways (they're like little mp3 players), and ebooks and digital audio.

What about Hoopla?
Hoopla is great. I like Hoopla because it gives my patrons (and me!) access to items that I'm not able to purchase because my budget is healthy but limited. Example: I love Jennifer Armentrout, and I've been working my way through the Lux series this past year. My library only owns the paperbacks of the books because the ebooks expired after 2 years, and the audiobooks would cost $360.65 to purchase for the library. Not only is that a lot, it's also not a good move for the collection to buy an older paranormal series (even a bestselling one) when that's not what's flying off the shelves. Lucky for me, all the Lux audiobooks are able on Hoopla! YAY!

Hoopla is basically like Netflix for libraries. The companies that own the various ebooks, audiobooks, comics, tv shows, movies, and music on Hoopla license those items to Hoopla. Libraries pay some sort of annual access fee, BUT what you may not know is that libraries ALSO pay a small fee per item (about $1-3). It varies by item type and probably also by the items owner. This is why you'll see a lot of libraries place limitations on Hoopla.

My library allows each patron to check out up to 5 Hoopla items per month. Not all of our patrons use Hoopla and not all patrons who use Hoopla use all 5 items every month so this helps keep our Hoopla budget manageable. When we first started, everyone could do 10 checkouts, and it was fine because we only had a couple hundred people using the service. But now that more patrons know about it, more are using it, and that's caused our costs to go up. Many libraries also have a daily limit they can spend on Hoopla so if you keep getting an error message, check out your items earlier in the day and earlier in the month. Circulation limits are a bummer, but keep in mind, libraries place those restrictions to make their services available to more people.

The great thing about Hoopla is that it's fairly easy to predict what is available there. Disney and Sourcebooks ebooks are available on Hoopla. Audiobooks from Tantor, Dreamscape, Scholastic, Blackstone, and Simon & Schuster Audio are on Hoopla *usually* right on their pub date, and Harper Audio and Macmillan Audio show up a few months or about a year after release (except for some of their bestsellers...). So I know that the audiobooks I really need to focus on for purchasing are definitely Listening Library's and some Harper and Macmillan titles. I usually don't buy any Disney ebooks anymore because I know my patrons can find those on Hoopla.

I consider items on Hoopla an extension of my collection, but it's important to remember we don't own those items so they can disappear at any time. Just like with Netflix, items come and go regularly on Hoopla. It's a very fluid collection.

Update July 2019: Hoopla is changing their service to allow libraries to purchase items directly from them, making them more like traditional library suppliers.

Twitter question: Bonnie of A Backwards Story asked:
Why does Hoopla never have holds like Overdrive?
Just like how multiple users on Netflix can watch Queer Eye and To All the Boys I've Loved Before simultaneously, Hoopla doesn't have a limited number of copies that can be checked out by one person at a time. Remember, library items purchased on Overdrive and Axis 360 are intended to be checked out by one user at a time, just like when you buy an ebook on kindle or nook, it's for one consumer. If you lend your kindle ebooks to a friend, you don't have access to that book while they have it. Library books are the same.

Update July 2019: Due to the Hoopla changes, you may start seeing a holds list on certain items on Hoopla. This will depend on each individual library/library system, and their service contract with Hoopla. 

First of all, be patient with your library staff. If they have limits to their services, ASK THEM. They are literally in the business of answering questions and providing information. If you're frustrated with limitations, let them know so they can pass it on to people in charge, but please be polite about it.

If you find a missing item in your library's digital collection (example: if they have Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems but they're missing China Rich Girlfriend), let them know! Tell them in person, put it on a suggestion form, fill out a request on the website. But do understand not every book is available at all times and that sometimes the library is in between purchasing cycles.

Don't check out digital items unless you are reasonably sure you're going to use it. I'm not saying don't check out digital items ever because that's pointless. They are meant to be checked out! If digital check-outs decrease, the library will cut its digital budget, and that hurts everyone. What I'm saying is don't be wasteful. Don't check out Hoopla items unless you know you'll use it because it does cost money. Don't have auto-check-out turned on in your Overdrive/Axis 360 settings. Wait for  the notification that your holds are in and then check it out.

In conclusion
Digital items are expensive, and libraries are doing the best with what they have, budget-wise. Relationships between publishers and libraries can be really frustrating, and there needs to be more transparency about the process of purchasing items and the cost of purchasing. I want publishers to listen to libraries' needs and provide books at a reasonable price with reasonable access. Hopefully this post has shed a little bit of light on the topic for all of you!

Questions & Comments
Let me know!


  1. This is such a great post!! I'm really glad I know more about Hoopla's system as well because now I won't check something out JUST IN CASE I decide to listen to it- I don't want to have my library pay for it unless I'm definitely reading it. Literally didn't even think of this before.

    1. I didn't even know about it for the first few months my library had Hoopla. It's not something most people think about because you just know your library has it available. Those external services can be tricky that way.

  2. This a great post! I love reading what you've got to say...even tho I just found you :D

    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad you learned something from it. :)

  3. Thanks so much for telling us how this all works! I already said this on Twitter, but I'd never realized that checking out on Hoopla cost the library money. I'm so glad to know because I'll be sure not to check anything out if I'm not positive I'm going to read/listen to it.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  4. This is fascinating stuff! 52 circs/2 years sounds awfully frustrating!