House vote takes aim at e-book prices

Hartford - The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill on Wednesday that aims to lower the price of electronic books for public libraries over time by having the State Library Board set up a statewide platform for e-books.

The hope is that publishers will give better prices to the State Library Board, which would be representing all public libraries, compared to an individual library.

"The problem was availability and price and every library was on its own in terms of trying to negotiate with the publisher," said state Rep. Brian Sear, D-Canterbury.

If the bill becomes law, it would give the State Library Board the power to create a statewide computer platform for distributing e-books to local libraries and their visitors. An e-book is a book that can be downloaded and read on computers or electronic devices such as tablets.

Last year, Sear advocated for legislation that would have regulated the prices publishers charged libraries for e-books.

Richard Conroy, director of the Essex Public Library, was one of the librarians who initially reached out to Sear for help.

The tipping point occurred a couple of years ago when a publisher raised the price on the e-book "Catherine the Great" overnight from $40 to $300, Conroy said in February. People could purchase it for $40 on Amazon.com but libraries had to purchase it for $300, he said. Some publishers also limited how many times an e-book could be downloaded, he said, which means the library has to repurchase the e-book license.

But Sear's initial legislation was not passed, and instead, the General Assembly passed legislation that required the state's Department of Consumer Protection to conduct a comprehensive study on e-books.

"When I first read the report, I was frustrated that enforcement legislation was not recommended," Sear said in written testimony, during a public hearing. "However, upon study and reflection I came to believe the recommendations are indeed in the best interests of the state."

This year's bill is the result of the study's recommendations. Sear, state Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, and state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, are the co-sponsors of the bill.

The program would cost $2.2 million to set up, according to the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. It would cost $1.1 million to write the code for the computer platform and $1 million for the initial purchase of e-books. The library board would be expected to absorb annual costs for staff and maintenance, estimated to be $100,000 in future years.

The state could provide the $2.2 million through bonding, according to OFA. The $2.2 million has not been approved yet.

Republicans also supported the bill, including state Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton, who said Connecticut has long been recognized for its distinguished history of interlibrary exchange.

This initiative "makes us current, vibrant and again something that will make us the envy of the nation," Sawyer said.

State Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, agreed. "Kids aren't going for books anymore," he said. "By keeping up with technology, we are keeping the place vibrant."

j.somers@theday.com

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