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More readers check out virtual libraries

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2011 - If there were any doubt that the e-book revolution had arrived, it was erased for the St. Louis County Library after the most recent holiday season when the system's website crashed due to a sudden rush of downloads.

"Everybody got e-readers for Christmas," said Heather Pehrson, the library's electronic resources coordinator. "It couldn't handle the traffic."

Pehrson manages the county's collection of e-books. Her work tells a tale of rapid growth and increased demand seen in other area libraries, even as some local bookstores report more mixed results. Independent operations, particularly, still do a brisk business off pulp and paper.

Physical books remain at the heart of local libraries as well but Pehrson oversees an expanding selection of 3,400 e-book titles. In September of last year, it had slightly more than half that number.

"We try to buy as many of the bestsellers as we can because they are the most popular with our customers," she said. "We try to get the new titles, but not all of them are available as e-books."

Demand is certainly on the rise. The library logged about 8,000 e-book checkouts in August, dwarfing the 2,300 it had for the same month last year. Pehrson said her organization has received positive feedback from patrons who can log on with their library card and a PIN number to access OverDrive, the Cleveland-based digital book contractor used by more than 15,000 libraries, schools and colleges, including the county.

There's even an additional benefit -- no overdue fines. The books "return" themselves.

"Customers love it," Pehrson said. "The only complaint I think I ever get is that there aren't enough titles to choose from."

Still, some aspects of the traditional library system remain in place. Even with e-books, you may still have to wait for a copy. Each individual copy of a title the library owns must be bought. "Maximum access" licenses that provide unlimited usage are expensive, and Pehrson said the county system doesn't use them. In all, it has about 4,500 copies.

Kindle Vs. the World

The county system did receive a bit of good news last month from OverDrive, one that will likely boost e-book consumption significantly. The provider now offers Kindle compatibility, allowing users of Amazon's proprietary e-reader to download from the library for the first time. Previously, library users were offered mostly works in EPUB, the general use format that dominates the non-Kindle world.

The same innovation has taken hold in the St. Charles City-County Library District, where Maggie Preiss, coordinator of children's resources and marketing, said Kindle is now available as well. She said since 2009, annual e-book circulation has increased well more than 20-fold. The library, which also uses OverDrive, has recorded more than 12,000 unique users since the program began with more than 4,600 signing up this year alone.

Preiss said the most recent fiscal year saw the district budget $13,500 for e-books but demand cause them blow up that figure.

"This year, our current budget is $76,300 and that's just for e-books," she said.

St. Charles reports nearly 7,000 unique titles with a little more than 7,600 copies. Only about 100 are "maximum access" though some out-of-copyright titles are also available in unlimited quantities.

Preiss said that, while many patrons do prefer the feel of a physical book, many have taken easily to e-ink or backlighted screens. And despite stereotypes of the younger generation coming to new technology earlier, she's found the opposite is true with e-books.

"I see adults using it more than maybe teens or kids are," she said. "We have quite a few titles for kids and teens, but I don't see the demand there being as high."

Barb Knotts, manager of electronic collections at the St. Louis City Library, said the city offers about 600-700 digital titles and has seen use of them increase dramatically, particularly after Christmastime last year.

"Our circulation has jumped every single month since we started this," she said.

Meanwhile the lag time has dropped.

"Often the bestsellers would come out after the print did," she said. "Now they are being published simultaneously. When it becomes available in print, we already have it in electronic download."

Smaller municipal libraries haven't been left out of the fun either. Patrick Wall, director of the University City Public Library said his institution now offers 785 e-book titles, 745 of them Kindle-compatible.

"It's been uniformly good," he said. "People love the e-books and the downloadable audio."

Nor is U. City alone. In fact, it's part of a consortium of similar libraries that includes Brentwood, Ferguson, Kirkwood, Maplewood, Richmond Heights, Rock Hill, Valley Park and Webster Groves, all of which can now offer the same e-titles.

"I think a lot of libraries have seen their circulation rise," he said. "Libraries have a tendency to become busier during economic downturns."

Not at the Tipping Point

Where libraries have been swamped with demand for e-books, some local independent bookstores have found there is no substitute for print.

"I can tell you, I've not had a single customer want one," said Michelle Barron, owner of the Book House in Rock Hill. "My theory is that this whole revolution with e-books is kind of overblown."

Barron offers e-books through an initiative, put together by Google and the American Booksellers Association, that allows independent bookstores like hers to sell an array of titles. She said the lack of excitement she's seen may be due to her store's focus, which tends to run less toward today's bestsellers and more in the direction of used books and obscure, harder-to-find works, known in industry jargon as "backlist."

But there are also the intangibles, she said.

"You can't really put an e-book in the back of your closet and rediscover it after 10 years," she said. "People do that with books all the time."

Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of indie landmark Left Bank Books, also reports light volume with the Google/ABA service, which she began offering from its inception.

"I would say that the e-book business continues to be pretty infinitesimal for us. However the learning curve is an ongoing challenge," she said. "We really have our work cut out for us and I don't think we've really gotten to a tipping point. We're far from it."

She said she felt Google and the ABA have done little to get the word out on the service leaving promotion efforts to the bookstores themselves, something she bluntly terms "a burden."

"It's not something where Left Bank Books can just decide to run a bunch of ads on prime-time television," she said. "That's not going to happen. My biggest gripe is what we are expected to do to market our product is impossible."

"But that doesn't mean we don't try," she added.

Kleindienst said research shows that many people are using both e-books and physical volumes.

Vicki Erwin, owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, just started using the Google/ABA service in May. She said she's seen a little demand but not much.

"My feeling is that it won't displace print," she said of e-books. "I'm waiting to see."

Erwin said one persistent problem is that some people like to sample books in her shop but go elsewhere to purchase the electronic version. "That's my big challenge, I feel, not just to be a showroom but to actually sell books as well," she said.

She noted she's actually had customers come in just to scan the cover of a book with an electronic device and then buy the book later online from a different provider. Others come in with a Kindle, unaware that they can only buy from Amazon, not her store.

Still, she said she has had a few people express interest, prices are competitive and e-books aren't without their advantages. "The beautiful thing is that I have no investment in inventory," she said.

Barnes & Noble seems optimistic about the e-book revolution. In response to emailed questions, the national chain retailer, which sells its own Nook e-reader as well as e-books, said it does not release sales figures. However, it did estimate the company's share of the U.S. e-book market at 26-27 percent.

Citing an "exploding market for digital content," Barnes & Noble said its Nook and Nook-related business grew to $277 million last quarter, a 140 percent year-over-year increase.

"Nook has become an established brand in the digital device and content space and a big business for Barnes & Noble," said a spokesperson via email. "We project Nook revenues to approach $1.8 billion this fiscal year. We project continued growth in the foreseeable future."

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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