Stephen King's novel Fairy Tale eBook sells for $16.99 to the public, but $62.99 to libraries. CTMirror photo

Imagine if the Department of Transportation had to pay four to six times more than your neighborhood driveway contractor for asphalt. Now imagine if all our roads completely disappeared after two years and the DOT had to build them all over again.

Sounds crazy, right? But those are the terms and conditions that public libraries across Connecticut are forced to accept every day – not for asphalt of course, but for eBooks.

Libraries lend eBooks as part of their mission to provide all residents with equitable access to information. While eBooks may seem like a luxury, they are an essential lifeline to literacy for those with vision impairment, dyslexia, or a lack of transportation. But while libraries purchase physical books at a deep discount, the opposite is true for eBooks.

Take Stephen King’s latest book, Fairy Tale. The price listed on the hardcover book is $32.50. Your local library has purchased this book under a contract that saves them 40-50% off that price – similar to what you as a consumer would pay via Amazon and other discounters. The library will keep the book until it falls apart or interest wanes.

The eBook version is a different story. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble are currently selling Fairy Tale as an eBook for $16.99. But publishers do not allow libraries to purchase eBooks the way consumers do. The current library price for Fairy Tale is $62.99 – almost four times higher. What’s worse, after two years, the title will completely disappear from the library’s collection. If the library still wants to offer it, they will need to re-purchase it at the same high cost.

Let’s remember who is paying these prices: taxpayers. Public libraries support their collections, at least in part, with municipal dollars.

Normally, when the state or a municipality buys anything from pencils to asphalt, they go through a procurement process to ensure that taxpayer funds are being spent responsibly. Somehow, publishers have been able to skirt procurement law for the last 20 years. Librarians in Connecticut are asking for that to change.

HB 6800 and HB 6829 are two bills in the Connecticut General Assembly this year that attempt to rein in the library eBook marketplace by setting contract terms and conditions for eBook sales. Publishers are, of course, crying foul.

Publishers claim that the bills will have an adverse effect on authors’ incomes, perhaps even forcing them out of the profession. But if a library pays four to six times more than a consumer for an eBook title, does the author earn four to six times more? No. Authors are typically paid by the copy sold, not by the price paid or the type of buyer.

If libraries could afford to purchase more copies, authors would actually do better.  Is it reasonable to claim that libraries want to put authors and publishers out of business? Of course not. But libraries cannot promote books and reading if they are priced out of the book marketplace.

Publishers say that these bills infringe on authors’ constitutional copyright protection. I’m not sure they’ve actually read the bills. Some bills raised in other states failed because they bumped up against federal copyright law. But Connecticut’s bills are different. They set contract terms.

Think about California’s gas mileage requirements for cars. California isn’t telling Ford that they MUST sell cars to California. They’re saying that if Ford WANTS to sell cars to California, they need to adhere to certain terms and conditions California sets. That is what Connecticut’s eBook bills are attempting to do: regulate an out-of-control library eBook marketplace. Libraries spend municipal, state and federal dollars on eBooks. The state absolutely has the authority to ensure that these dollars are responsibly spent.

Libraries in Connecticut are asking the state for help. Not just for libraries, not just for readers, but for every Connecticut taxpayer who deserves a better return on their investment. Tell your legislator that you support HB 6800, HB 6829, and your local public library.

Ellen Paul is the Executive Director of the CT Library Consortium.