Carnegie libraries stock up on e-books to be downloaded for free

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Long-suffering Kindle users, take note: Free electronic books, better known as e-books, are finally at a library near you.

Amazon's biggest-selling e-reader device -- and the last holdout in allowing libraries to use it -- on Wednesday announced its books would be available to 11,000 libraries across the country on Amazon's e-book platform.

In the Pittsburgh region, that includes all branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and in Allegheny County, which have already been allowing library users to download free e-books on Nooks, iPads, Sony Readers, smartphones, laptops and other devices since the summer of 2010.

There are more Kindle users out there by far, however, said Sarah Beasley, coordinator of e-resources for Carnegie Library, and until this week they were shut out of the library lending scene.

Now all versions of Kindle will be able to download library books, as will the Kindle App on a desktop computer as well as the iPhone, the iPad and Android devices.

"We've always gotten way more phone calls from Kindle owners asking if they could download library e-books on that device, and we'd always have to say no. Now we can say yes," Ms. Beasley said.

But before you make plans to download Kathryn Stockett's best-selling "The Help," take note: All 12 of those e-books owned by libraries in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are checked out, and will be for a while. Tina Fey's "Bossypants"? There are 32 people on the waiting list for that e-book.

That's because libraries must purchase single electronic copies of e-books for one reader to check out at a time, to avoid cannibalizing the book's sales. So far, the city and county's collection -- they share e-books -- amounts to about 3,000.

"We don't have every book in the universe," Ms. Beasley said. "Not even close."

The library's e-book inventory will grow, she said, but slowly, given recent budget cuts with which many libraries have had to grapple. Meanwhile, there are still kinks to work out for existing e-readers.

Besides requiring that your library card be up to date, the library's website for checking out e-books has a somewhat clunky URL: http://acla.lib.overdrive.com.

Getting to the site is half the battle. For now, you must download software onto your computer before you can borrow an e-book -- Adobe Digital Editions for e-books and OverDrive Media Console for audiobooks, plus a mobile version of OverDrive for phones and tablets.

Plus, readers can't expect to renew their e-books indefinitely, whether they use a Kindle, a Nook -- which has about half of Kindle's ownership base -- an iPad or another device. After two weeks, the download expires and is automatically deleted from the device.

The reader can renew it, unless someone else is waiting for it, in which case he or she has to get to the end of the line.

"I was so excited when I heard about this, but there's a lot I'm frustrated about," said Kelly Beeson, a Kindle user from Brighton Heights. "When I tried to check a few books out this morning, they were all taken. It just seems counterintuitive to wait for a digital copy of something."

Kindle's entry -- bringing with it Amazon's inventory of nearly 1 million books -- may benefit libraries trying to stay relevant in the digital age, but it may also make borrowing a book preferable to buying it.

And that notion is potentially terrifying to a publishing industry already reeling from changes in consumer reading habits in recent years, which have led to closed bookstores and books available for just pennies on Amazon.com.

"It's a very big deal," said Peter Hildick-Smith, president of Codex-Group, a book marketing research company. "It's yet another way to read a book cheaply, which is not a good thing for publishers."

It's not clear what made Amazon finally jump on board the lending library bandwagon. E-book sales are growing compared to print, but that growth is not making up for "the very precipitously negative drop in print sales," noted Mr. Hildick-Smith.

Taken altogether, the most recent figures released this week by the book industry's trade group, the Association of American Publishers, found that overall sales from adult hardcover, paperback and mass market; children's hardcover and paperback; downloadable audiobooks and e-books were $2.19 billion for the first half of 2011, compared with $2.39 billion for the first half of 2010.

Currently, about two thirds of all libraries in the U.S. loan e-books, up 12 percent from about two years ago, the American Library Association says. Last summer, when the libraries in the county and city began loaning e-books to people with e-readers and other mobile devices, 18,000 e-books, videos and audiobooks were checked out. So far this year, 42,000 e-books, videos and audiobooks have been checked out, Ms. Beasley said.

Most e-books -- here and across the country -- are loaned through OverDrive, an Ohio-based software company that serves as the middleman for publishers and libraries, but two of the "big six" book publishers -- Macmillan and Simon & Schuster (the other three are Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group and Random House) -- are still refusing to allow libraries to lend their e-books.

HarperCollins has imposed a 26-time lending limit, after which the library must repurchase the book, which caused a furor within the library community, prompting top members of the American Library Association to meet with the Association of American Publishers. To date, though, HarperCollins hasn't changed its position.

Kindle has called a news conference for Wednesday, and industry insiders believe it will be announcing a color tablet computer version of the Kindle. There's also talk it will introduce a Kindle4 for less than $100 before the holiday season.

In general, about a third of all book readers still buy print, another third use e-readers and "another third are waiting for the e-reader price to come down," said Mr. Hildick-Smith, noting that when Kindle dropped its price a year ago from $189 to $139, it doubled sales.

Still, libraries believe this won't hurt them -- or the publishing industry -- in the long run.

"We're still a point of discovery," Ms. Beasley said. "Whether you come to our library or go on our website, if you really love the book you may end up buying it for yourself. People will still want to build their own libraries and have a collection of their favorites in one form or another."


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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