The Real Costs of Digital Content: eBook and Digital Audiobooks

Timberland Regional Library, like many libraries in the US, uses a company called OverDrive to provide ebooks and digital audiobooks to library patrons.  OverDrive provides the platform and technology to make digital checkouts possible – a website, the Libby app, and the marketplace for the library to buy/license the books. OverDrive works with publishers to make their titles available to the library market and to the library user.  

Library costs for ebooks and digital audiobooks vary widely by publisher. Some offer standard retail pricing to libraries. In those cases, a book that a retail consumer could purchase at $14.99 is also offered to libraries at those terms. Many publishers, though, charge libraries substantially more than retail price.  And others do not sell, but instead license the books to libraries with restrictions, such as a max number of checkouts, a time limit, or some combination of both. 

Here is a comparison of costs for some recent bestsellers (data from 4-1-2024): 

Title  Physical Book Cost (with discount)  OverDrive Cost for Libraries  Amazon Kindle Cost 
The Women / Kristin Hannah  $18.00  $60/copy - 24-month license          


Audiobook is $59.99 (ownership, no license) 

Listen for the Lie / Amy Tintera  $17.00  $60/copy - 24-month license          


Audiobook is $49.99 (ownership, no license) 

James / Percival Everett  $17.00  $27.50/copy - 12-month license or $55.00/copy for 24 months          


Audiobook is $76.00 (ownership, no license) 

The #1 Lawyer / James Patterson  $18.00  $65/copy – 24-month license          


Audiobook is $75/copy for a 24-month license. 

Toxic Prey  $19.00  $27.50/copy - 12-month license or $55.00/copy for 24 months          


Audiobook is $95.00 (ownership, no license) 



High costs combined with titles that have licenses expire put the library in a double bind. While trying to meet demand by buying multiple copies of new material, other still popular older titles expire, and the library must buy another license to keep providing it.  

Compare this to the physical book, which the library can often buy at discount from book suppliers and circulate until the condition deteriorates. The library can then buy additional books if needed. Physical books can often circulate 50 or more times for years before needing replacement. The same goes for physical CD audiobooks.  

Increased use of OverDrive and the resulting need to buy more copies will continue to drive up costs for digital materials. Use of the OverDrive collection skyrocketed in 2020 and has increased each year since. If use holds, TRL will reach a 2 million check out milestone this year.  

  2020  2021  2022  2023 
Checkouts  1,222,221  1,369,355  1,533,060  1,853,704 
Increase from Previous Year  24%  12%  12%  20% 


The trend of costs is unsustainable. Timberland wants to continue to provide a robust digital collection with as short wait times as possible. This can only happen if publishers offer more reasonable terms to the library market, including lower prices (particularly on older material) and a reduction of inequitable licensing restrictions.  Libraries want to continue to partner with publishers to facilitate discoverability of titles and authors, something that both benefits publisher’s bottom lines and library patrons. Libraries just need a fair price.  

Here are some articles highlighting this issue across the United States: 


Bonus Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About eBooks 

Why is a book on Amazon, but not available on OverDrive? 

There are many ebooks available on Amazon or other platforms that are not made available to the library market.  If an author has signed an exclusive agreement to Amazon that means their titles are only sold on that platform.  

Why is an audiobook on Audible, but not available on OverDrive? 

Audible is owned by Amazon. There are “Audible Exclusives” not available anywhere else, including libraries.  

Why do I have to wait? It’s just a digital file – can’t it be used by multiple people at once?  

Publishers set the terms of use. It is one copy / one user for most everything.  Some exceptions would be titles that might be purchased with 100 simultaneous uses or licensed for a set time for simultaneous use. More publishers have been testing out this “100 use” model in the past year. If it is cost effective for the library that model will be purchased.  

Do libraries pay more for print books or audiobooks on CD? 

There are no restrictions placed on physical materials purchased by libraries.  Libraries may even get a better price than the retail market based on discounts received through our suppliers.    

Here is a chart that breaks down the digital licensing that the “Big 5” publishers offer to libraries. 

Publisher  eBook  Audiobook 
Hachette Book Group  One Copy/One User licensed for 24-months  One Copy/One User licensed for 24-months years 
HarperCollins  One Copy/One User licensed for 26 circulations          


One Copy/One User          

Some backlist titles available as Cost-per-Circ model 


Macmillan  One Copy/One User licensed for 52 circulations OR 24-months, whichever comes first.  One Copy/One User          



Penguin Random House  One Copy/One User licensed for 12 or 24 months.   One Copy/One User          


Simon & Schuster  One Copy/One User licensed for 24-months          


Some backlist titles are available as Cost-per-Circ model. 

One Copy/One User licensed for a 24-months          


Some backlist titles available as Cost-per-Circ model 


*One copy/one user = one user can use the copy at a time 

*Cost-per-circ = each checkout generates a charge to the library