This and similar questions are questions I ask myself all the time. And no, that number is not an exaggeration, and it wasn’t just for a particularly rare book. It was for an academic book marketed to academic libraries, so they felt they could charge that amount. As staff, part of my duties are processing new books to put on the shelves, which entails looking at the prices to check whether they will be for check-out or in-library use only (naturally, the most expensive do not leave the library due to the cost to replace lost or damaged volumes). Now, as a visiting Librarian, part of my duties have been to purchase books, so I see the prices of books we don’t buy as well. And as a life-long private book buyer, the costs have been truly astounding.
I’m sure most people in the library world or adjacent to it have heard about the problems with e-books. The fact that libraries can’t actually own them, we essentially lease them and they can be removed from our collection at any time. The restrictions on usage. And many other issues. But one thing that is not talked about as much is the cost that is charged to libraries to allow us to lend a book digitally. A book that might cost $15-$20 on Amazon Kindle for a lay reader, suddenly costs several hundred dollars for a single-user license (that means only one person can check it out at a time). And if we want to make it more accessible, say because it’s a book taught to a large class regularly so multiple people need to be able to have access at a time? Well, the price skyrockets again. And there is very little that libraries can do against the vendors. This IS the better version of those prices, after our consortiums have negotiated the price down as much as possible.
But the problem is not restricted to e-books in any way. I only process physical new books, so my primary experience is with physical books, not ebooks. And over and over again I would see a tiny book of maybe 100 pages, no significant photographs or particular binding, priced at over $200. Sometimes these books are bought through consortium pricing, and sometimes we have to buy on the open market from places like Amazon or Ebay because that’s the only place they’re available. I am purchasing a children’s book (CHILDREN’S BOOK!) that is priced at $138 on Amazon. Worse, it’s a book by a Native American author, a rarity in children’s books that is to be treasured. So if that one is not approved due to price, then that’s one less point of diversity in our children’s book collection. I just did a quick check of our system, looking for general education books, and immediately ran across two hard-back books priced at $2000 and $1250 respectively because of that. These are not rare ancient texts, unique and irreplaceable. These are average text books.
Because that is the issue. For every book that is priced outrageously, that’s a little less money in our budget for more niche books with marginalized authors and less-discussed ideas. That’s a little drop in the bucket for making our collections more homogeneous, as we are forced to buy only the more mainstream books we can afford, and let the ones who might only appeal to a small selection of our patrons go. But those patrons deserve to find books that resonate with them as well, whether that’s by seeing themselves reflected in it or by being exposed to a new idea and new way of thinking about the world. And sure, you cold say that libraries should just be funded better so we can purchase all the books we want. But there’s always going to be limits on the budget, and the large conglomerations of publishers and vendors are going to continue to gouge libraries to the limit the market can bear, because we’re often locked into contracts requiring us to buy from certain venues, especially with ebooks.
Just to be clear, I do not blame authors or editors for this, or the general workers who produce the books. They’re not the ones setting the prices, and books should be priced to allow all those people to be paid a fair living wage for their work. But this is price gouging by megacorporations pure and simple. This is not going to pay the workers and authors better, it’s going to line the pockets of CEOs and investors in the name of Capitalism. I deal with a lot of art books because I’m normally in the Art library. Big books, heavy duty bindings, composed of hundreds of color photographs on expensive glossy paper. I expect those to be consequently more expensive. But this is not that. This is charging exorbitant sums for cheaply bound academic texts that only a library or a dedicated researcher is likely to have in their collection, and counting on institutional budgets to cover your greed. This is an affront to me as the daughter of a bookbinder (I know what it costs in terms of materials and labor to create books that are individual works of art, unique and unduplicatable, but these are not that). I would call out specific books for this, but I haven’t been taking notes to remember which books these are, just noticing enraging trends. I will call out the ebook-publishers though, monopolies like Ebsco Ebooks and Ebook Central.
I don’t have any solutions to this issue. There are people much smarter and more experienced than I am working on these things, but I do think more people should be aware of the problem. Maybe your local library doesn’t have that book you want because it cost an arm and two legs and their budget only stretches to an arm. I dunno. Try InterLibrary Loan (a subject for another day).