A Kobo H20. It comes with support for lending books from libraries out of the box.
Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

Public libraries are a national treasure that few people seem to appreciate anymore, but I am here to tell you that you are ignoring a precious resource because these bastions of socialism don’t just have free books. They have free ebooks. We’ve definitely preached the benefits of library ebooks before, but like the DVDs and streaming services, ebooks are a library perk most people forget about.

Say a book you kind of want to read is making headlines for some interesting plot twist, but it’s brand new. The hardcover will cost you $25, and the ebook costs at least $15.99. You’re not dying to read this book, but if it appeared on your nightstand, you’d definitely finish it within a week. Instead of spending that money, turn to your local library, which is always there in your time of need, and has a fully stocked e-book database with all the latest titles (with a few exceptions).

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There’s one slight problem: Library ebooks are, for some dumb reason, a limited resource and have also become incredibly popular, which is inconvenient for me. I regularly have to wait more than a month for the newest titles to become available.

You might be wondering why an e-book, which could theoretically contain multitudes, requires a waitlist. Well! Publishers have worked out a system, recently detailed in the Washington Post, in which they license ebooks to libraries for a limited amount of time or number of reads. Libraries shell out $12-$14 for a new hardcover and $40-$60 to license a new e-book. It is, quite frankly, bananas.

I have my own system to get around this. As a voracious reader, I like to stay up-to-date on which buzzworthy titles are coming out in the next few months. Book Riot and Goodreads are solid resources for information about upcoming books. Even just googling “books coming out in 2020" should lead you down some fun rabbit holes.

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Armed with a list, I log into my Los Angeles Public Library account. Then I type every title into the database to see if the LA libraries have ordered electronic copies of upcoming titles yet. If they have, I add myself to the queue. If I’m lucky, I catch a title not too many people have heard of yet. If I’m unlucky, anywhere from 50 to 100 people are already waiting for this book and I can expect to read it in several months. If that’s the case, I’ll also add myself to the queue for the hardcover and wait to see which becomes available first.

If you add a whole bunch of e-books to your library holds, you’ll need to stay on top of their arrival times. If five books become available to download simultaneously, you either need to be an incredibly fast reader or accept the fact that you’ll have to get back in line for a few of the titles, which is a terrible feeling. With some organizational skills, you can suspend holds and save your spot in various queues while you work your way through your reading list.

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I use a 5-year-old Kindle Paperwhite to check out ebooks from the library website, which then shunts me over to Amazon to finish downloading. The Kindle is still chugging along just fine (although its microUSB charging port is starting to chip away at my spirit very, very slowly), and it is my accomplice in my most game-changing ebook hack. I’m not overselling this, I promise.

Whenever a library loan is close to ending and I’m nowhere near done with an ebook, I put my Kindle in airplane mode to disconnect it from wifi. The library shows the ebook as returned to the system, but has no way to remove it from my device. This trick ensures that I can finish reading it before the book disappears from my life forever, and I haven’t fucked it up for the next person in the queue. Everyone wins!

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A recent ebook industry development could potentially ruin my life. Public library systems use a couple of different content providers, namely 3M and OverDrive (which supports Kindle books). OverDrive was recently acquired by a private equity firm, KKR, which could change the way libraries license books and how much they have to pay. KKR was also involved in the leveraged buyout of Toys R Us, and, well, we all know how that played out.

The OverDrive sale hasn’t yet been finalized, so for now I will continue to check out e-books with abandon, and I encourage you all to do so, too. Support your local library, and if an e-book resonates with you, support the author. Buy copies for yourself, your friends, and, hey, maybe even a few physical copies for your neighborhood library too.

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Consumer tech editor, Gizmodo.

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