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How Hall libraries, local authors are responding to digital demand
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The Hall County Library System offers access to several sites where people can borrow digital materials, with Hoopla being the most popular. The site has ebooks, audiobooks, music, movies, TV shows and comics. It now offers free tutoring and test prep as well. - photo by Austin Steele

“Reading” might not mean the same thing to everyone anymore, but the Hall County Library System is adapting to meet people in the middle.

The library system started offering downloadable products about five years ago and has seen the demand for those materials triple since then, Library Director Lisa MacKinney said. In the last fiscal year, which ran from July 2017 through June 2018, about 19,000 digital products, including magazines, e-books and audiobooks, were downloaded through the library system’s databases.

But print still comes out on top, MacKinney said — that year, 217,000 physical materials were checked out from the adult collection, and 182,000 from the children’s collection. Digital materials are only about one-fifth of the library system’s materials budget every year.

The library system offers access to several sites where people can borrow digital materials, with Hoopla being the most popular. The site has e-books, audiobooks, music, movies, TV shows and comics.

MacKinney said audiobooks are the most popular digital item in Hall.

“I don’t think anybody sees print going away, but it seems to be a growing trend,” she said. “…Audiobooks in Hall County are huge, and we used to see that for CDs, a huge trend. Definitely the audiobook users are transitioning at a more rapid rate than print users with ebooks. Locally, that’s what we see.”

Jeanne Jimerson, the adult services manager for the library system, said audiobooks’ popularity is due to their convenience.

“This is such a mobile population. You’re in your car, you’re listening. You’re walking, you’re listening,” Jimerson said. “You don’t have to physically have an item in your hand. You’re able to have it on your device.”

While it may not recruit too many new readers, people who enjoy books now have more options, she said.

“If you’re a reader, if you like books, it provides you an additional format to access them,” Jimerson said.

And MacKinney said the top request at libraries in the past few years has been for more charging stations, so that people can bring those devices with them.

Georgia author Ronda Rich said that as a reader, she enjoys the convenience of e-books.

“I can be sitting in the airport and I finish a book and I need something new,” she said. “I can go on to a shopping site and buy something right there. I might be out in the middle of nowhere and I can’t get a (print) book.”

But, Gainesville-based fantasy author Alison Reeger Cook, who writes under the name A.R. Cook, said some people are starting to miss print books and are going back.

“If you grew up as a reader, you love the feel of a book in your hand. You like the smell of a book in your hand,” Cook said. “If you have a job where you’re standing at a computer screen all day … the last thing you want to do when you come home is look at another screen.”

Still, the top question she gets at events is whether her books are available to download, Cook said. Readers want to save space by storing multiple books on one device and love having immediate access to the book they want, Cook said.

“For someone who just loves to read and is constantly doing it, it’s just more space. … It’s kind of the world at your fingertips,” she said.

Rich said the growth of e-books hasn’t really made writers change how they do their work. Publishers have been the ones to adapt.

“(Authors) simply get paid through another way now. You get the hardcover, the softcover, ebooks and audio now,” Rich said. “It’s adding an additional stream of revenue. But at the same time, it’s taken revenue from another source, that being paper books.”

One major change, though, is that the “life” of a book is extended and books are less likely to go out of print, Rich said.

“(Before e-books), you could get the rights to your book back. At this point, the publishers own almost everything I ever wrote,” she said. “… With the advent of e-books, publishers will not give you your rights back, because they can keep it living through ebooks or digital printing.”

Rich said she has been able to get back the rights to some of her earlier books, including “The Town That Came A-Courtin’,” which she was able to get the rights for before it became a movie.

And publishers benefit from e-books because they are cheap to produce but can usually be sold for just as much, or possibly more, than the cost of a print book.

“As a reader, I would like to see those prices lower,” Rich said. “But as an author who depends on this industry, and I don’t want to see it go away, I am glad they found a way that they can supplement the loss of audience that may have been felt.”

MacKinney said that due to restrictions from publishers, libraries cannot always offer all the bestsellers patrons are requesting.

“Some publishers will not sell e-books to public libraries because they haven’t figured out a way that they think is fair. Theoretically, I can buy a copy of James Patterson’s new book and it could last 100 years. … Is it likely to last that long? No, it’s not likely, but it’s possible,” she said. “…An ebook is never going to wear out.”

Some publishers don’t think it is fair that libraries, which can circulate an e-book over and over, are charged the same price as an individual consumer who buys the book for themselves, MacKinney said. Some will charge libraries extra or place a limit on how many times it can be circulated, she said.

Cook said e-books have made it easier for authors to share their work by self-publishing online, with many only selling their work as e-books.

“It’s easier to get books out there,” Cook said. “It’s more accessible, and even if it’s less expensive (to buy) … you’re making money that way.”

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