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Busting Myths About Library eBooks

Think you know how the world of digital library materials works? Think again!

It seems reasonable to assume that eBooks are the same as books — just electronic. It’s in the name, after all. But when it comes to how libraries acquire, lend and maintain digital materials versus physical items, the difference is considerable and complicated. To shed some light on the matter, FCPL Technical Operations Division Director Dianne Coan and collection services staff break down nine of the most common myths about eBooks.

Myth stamp, Fact stamp, question mark-shaped book shelf, laptop with "ebook"  text on screen

MYTH #1: Because they are less expensive to distribute, eBooks and eAudiobooks cost less.

BUSTED! Consumers may be able to get great deals on eMaterials, but libraries generally cannot. EBooks and eAudiobooks can cost libraries up to six times more than a printed book.

MYTH #2: Anything published nowadays is also published in digital formats.

BUSTED! Not all new titles are available in all formats. Titles are more commonly released as eBooks, rather than eAudiobooks, for various reasons. For most people, an eAudiobook cookbook doesn’t make a lot of sense. Highly technical nonfiction titles also don’t translate well to audio. Those are generalities, but the important takeaway is that not every book that is published is available in all formats. Library users may access the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled's Talking Book program through our Access Services branch.

MYTH #3: The library chooses to limit the number of people who can read an eBook at one time. There shouldn't be holds queues on eBooks; they're digital — we can share!

IT'S COMPLICATED. EBooks and eAudiobooks are licensed, just like computer software such as Microsoft Office is licensed. In most cases, libraries legally are allowed to lend them to only one cardholder at a time, the same as print books. It’s important to understand that eMaterials aren’t otherwise treated as books under print copyright laws; instead, they have user licenses as though they were software.  

Occasionally, libraries negotiate deals where multiple users can enjoy digital books at the same time. FCPL advertises these eMaterials as “Always Available.” Our eBook of the Month is an example of how we negotiate a special deal for our cardholders. 

MYTH #4: Libraries can purchase all published eBooks and eAudiobooks.

BUSTED! Not all publishers, including self-published authors, make their work available to libraries.  

Audible Exclusives, for example, are available only on that platform and not to libraries. The number one book we are asked for but cannot access is Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime, an Audible Exclusive. Some self-publishing platforms also contain exclusivity clauses, which means those titles are only available on those platforms.

Sometimes publishers embargo new titles (placing a hold on their distribution), and libraries cannot access those books until the embargo is lifted. The timeframe varies by publisher. So, while we can eventually offer those books, our cardholders won’t be among the first people to read them unless they choose to purchase them independent of the library.

MYTH #5: An author holds the copyright to his or her work. 

IT'S COMPLICATED. Publishers usually license the rights to a book. In years past, print, digital and audio were negotiated under separate licenses. With a handful of larger publishers, terms for author contracts — excepting the very famous authors' — have become fairly standardized over time and now include both digital and audio rights. Some authors may have had previous digital publication rights revert back to them while their print books are still under contract with a publisher.

The important takeaway is that eBooks and eAudiobooks legally are treated differently than print books at every step of the publishing process, which impacts both creators and consumers.

MYTH #6: EBooks are forever (or at least for as long as the internet exists).

BUSTED! Unlike print books, an eBook you purchase may or may not be available to you perpetually (more on that next!). 

Right now, the five major publishers offer books to libraries via “metered access,” which means that after a certain number of checkouts or a set amount of time the book must be repurchased by the library for the title to remain in its digital collection.

MYTH #7: I don't need to return my eBook, because it just expires at the end of the borrowing period.

IT'S COMPLICATED. Yes, it’s true that your eBook and eAudiobook downloads from the library will expire automatically at the end of the borrowing period. But we are all sharing the same resources (and, like we talked about, we can’t all use them simultaneously), so when you’re done reading or listening, click that “return now” button so your fellow cardholders can enjoy that book!

MYTH #8: EMaterials are treated the same everywhere.

BUSTED! Laws are evolving as eBooks and eAudiobooks gain popularity. Beginning in January 2022, library cardholders in Maryland may have access to materials that those in every other state do not. According to Publisher’s Weekly, Maryland is the first state to pass a law that ensures public libraries the right to license and lend eBooks that are available to consumers. 

International laws and rights also factor in, so your friends in England and Canada may have access to different versions of your favorite titles than what you have in Virginia, and vice versa.

MYTH #9: I own my eBook so I can donate it to the library.

BUSTED! Not only do you not own a digital eBook or eAudiobook the same way you own the print books on your bookshelf, but you also cannot donate them. What you purchased is not an eBook, but a license to use a copy of that eBook. That license prevents you from reselling it or donating it as you could with a physical book. With physical books, you hold what’s known as the right of first resale, which does not exist with licenses. Go read the license agreement on your favorite eBook for the specifics. 

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