On the very same day, I placed a hold for an e-book version of Dan Brown’s “Inferno” on OverDrive, and for the actual physical book in my local library’s system.

I’m not sure where I was in the queue for the e-book, but I was somewhere around 237 to get the physical book from the library. I knew I’d be waiting. Probably about two weeks later, I got an automated call from the library that my book was in.

I picked it up, read it over the weekend, and on June 9, the physical book was back at the library.

My need to consume the words on the pages of “Inferno” were gone. (What I actually thought of the book is an entirely different topic).

I didn’t think of the book again until the following Monday morning, when I received an email from OverDrive, telling me my e-book was ready for me. Wow—that was two weeks after I’d already finished the physical book. (I’d since forgotten that I’d also put the book on hold in OverDrive.)

It got me thinking about loan services at libraries. I was actually a little surprised that the two were so far apart from each other. Two weeks lag time could be significant to some people, especially if it’s a popular book and you’re looking to avoid spoilers.

My thinking is that the library has more physical books on hand than e-books. According to the library catalog, there seems to be dozens of physical books available in the Westchester County, N.Y., library system.

When it comes to e-books, I imagine there are only two copies maximum.

It made me realize how deficient e-books are when it comes to getting them from the library. It wasn’t just this moment. There are books I’ve wanted to read and cannot find the e-book version to borrow, so I’m left either getting the physical book from the library or purchasing it online. But e-books are so much easier to manage than physical books. It’s a wonder more companies won’t allow a greater number of e-books into libraries.

What are the publishers afraid of? That no one will buy books anymore? (I bought two just this weekend alone.) Are they scared that customers will run away? Libraries have been lending books for decades. It hasn’t scared off any readers I know.

So why are e-books so different?


  1. FYI, “When it comes to e-books, I imagine there are only two copies maximum.” Overdrive’s page for the book will tell you how many copies are available at your library. Or at least it does for mine. (FTR, 31 copies of “Inferno” with 467 people on the waiting list.) Obviously this will vary a lot by library, but you can see how many are available for different books.

  2. If your Overdrive library is like mine, you can choose your automatic return time from 1 week, 2 weeks, or 3 weeks. I imagine lots of people choose the 3 weeks. The only return time on a paper book is 2 weeks.

    Plus, many libraries are able to rent extra copies of paper books for that first surge of borrowing. The same feature isn’t available for ebooks.

    On top of this, very few libraries have as large a budget for digital as paper so the money goes into physical books. Libraries may be forward looking, but the city budget makers and many of the taxpayers aren’t so they expect to see that bestseller on the shelves.

    The price of legal and free is time so you either need to learn to wait patiently or buy the dang book yourself.

  3. The ebook library loan market is utterly absurd, I suspect because the major publishers are paralyzed by market changes.

    Why does a public library have to own a copy of a particular ebook to be able to loan it out? That idea is a holdover from the limitations of physical books. Why can’t a library subscribe to all a publisher’s ebook titles, perhaps for free, and instead pay a per-use rental fee for each checkout?

  4. The eBook copies are probably purchased at a lower rate than the print copies (keeping the hold ratio higher for eBooks) due to the higher cost of the eBook. A single eBook copy of “The Inferno” is $85. A library can purchase four, five, or six copies of the print title for the cost of a single eBook from Random House through OverDrive.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.