Libby is an app that lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks from your public library. It’s free to download and use, you can install it on iOS and Android, and while I’ve only used it in the US, it works with some international public libraries as well.

Libby is the best app I have ever used. Not because of its design (which I do like), or because of the number of things it does (it does a few things well), but because it solves a hard problem so well.

First I want to talk about the basics of borrowing ebooks, because it used to be complicated but it’s not anymore. Second, I want to convince you to use Libby even if you can afford to buy ebooks.

If you don’t stick around till the end, my message is this: Use Libby to read for free, donate your buying money to your local library.

Quick start

You will need a library card. You might be able to get one remotely, but I had to show up in person to show evidence of residency before getting mine. Once you have your card, open Libby and connect it to your library account.1

That’s it. You’re ready to use Libby to:

  1. Put holds on books (more on this below).
  2. Borrow a book immediately if there are copies available.
  3. Borrow a book you had a hold on if it’s your turn (more on this below), or
  4. Deliver a book later (my favorite Libby feature, by far).
  5. Send your ebook loan to your Kindle if you have one (more on this below).

Holds and loans

A library hold is your place in line to borrow an item. For virtual items, a hold is only required if all copies are currently borrowed by readers, and you want to get in line for one. If a copy is available, you can borrow it immediately, because there’s no reason to hold the bytes, they can be sent to your device immediately.

A note about copies: Libraries get a limited number of “copies” of any virtual item. That’s ridiculous of course, it’s just a file so it’s not the copies that are limited, it’s licenses. The page I linked to explains it in a more diplomatic tone, but in summary the old publishing houses continue to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, and they haven’t figured out a way to make their business work while letting library borrowers copy a file as many times as they need so they could all read a book at the same time without also bankrupting the library. Maybe one day we’ll figure this out. Until then, your library can send the bytes that make up Hitch-22 to a limited number of people, and they can’t send them to you until they make sure that one of those peoples’ devices is no longer authorized to show those bytes anymore.

Libby lets you put holds on up to 25 items at the same time.2 Once it’s your turn and a copy of a hold is available to you, Libby will notify you, and you can make one of two decisions: Borrow, or Deliver Later.

Deliver Later is my favorite Libby feature, it’s the reason to use the app. If a copy becomes available but you’re not ready to start reading (e.g., you don’t think you’ll have time to finish the book before it’s due), Libby lets you defer the loan. Instead of going to the back of the line (which could be months long in many cases), you can choose how long before you’re offered the book again. The link describes it best: “Delivering a hold later keeps you at the front of the wait list, but passes the current copy to the next person in line.” One minor downside is you can’t be exact with when it’s your turn again–it depends on the range of time it takes people to read their copies.

With Deliver Later, you don’t have to time your holds to avoid getting a bunch of books all at once. You can keep deferring until you have the time to read something new.

Reading and listening

Briefly. If what you’re borrowing is an ebook, you can read it in the Libby app itself. That said, most ebooks available on the app are compatible with Kindles, and Libby makes sending the loan to your Kindle very easy.3 I love this, first because if you own a Kindle you probably prefer to read on it instead of your phone/tablet’s screen anyway. Second, because the Kindle will save all your highlights from the borrowed book just like it does with ebooks you own–even after you return your loan. Is your mind blown? Mine still is, and I’ve been using Libby for years.

If what you’re borrowing is an audiobook, the Libby app is the only option for listening, as far as I can tell.

Complications and closing thoughts

It’s not all roses and candy canes. ebooks are very expensive for libraries.

E-books at libraries are a huge hit, leading to long waits, reader hacks and worried publishers

And while there are technically an infinite number of copies of digital files, e-books also work differently. When a library wants to buy a physical book, it pays the list price of about $12 to $14, or less if buying in bulk, plus for services like maintenance. An e-book, however, tends to be far more expensive because it’s licensed from a publisher instead of purchased outright, and the higher price typically only covers a set number of years or reads.
A library typically pays between $40 and $60 to license a new e-book adult title, which it can then loan out to one patron at a time, mimicking how physical loans work. Each publisher offers different payment models. Under one, a library only has an e-book for two years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first. Another agreement covers 26 checkouts per book.

I know. It’s backwards. An ebook has no marginal cost. It costs nothing to copy, nothing to host, nothing to send to a buyer or borrower, yet it’s priced like it’s only slightly cheaper if you’re buying, and like it’s more costly if you’re borrowing. You’ve probably already had the what-planet-is-this experience of seeing a book’s paperback priced at $16 and the ebook version priced at $12.99. It makes no sense except as a reminder that things aren’t priced on sense, they’re priced on what the market will bear.4

This perversion might prompt you to stick with buying ebooks instead of borrowing them out of some desire to alleviate the burden on the libraries. Maybe you’re lucky and you can afford it, and hey, you can get the book when you want and you keep it forever.

Let me ask you, instead, to not do that. Keep borrowing, and if you can afford it, set up a recurring donation to your local library. You and I can go back to buying most of the books we read, but others actually rely on the library for their reading, and this won’t get better if we all back off because it’s creating a problem. This kind of problem can only be resolved if demand for this service stays high and goes higher.

  1. You might need to provide your library credentials, I’m not sure because it’s been a while since I set mine up and I haven’t had to do it a second time in years. ↩︎

  2. It’s possible the number varies by public library. I use the Seattle Public Library and 25 is the limit of simultaneous holds available to me. ↩︎

  3. Caveat: this process happens through Amazon, which has a deal with libraries to deliver their Kindle versions of ebooks as loans to Kindles. You’ll have to sign in to Amazon for this to work. The book will disappear from your Kindle automatically when the loan is due. ↩︎

  4. A reader of a draft of this post was skeptical that the cost to product and ship paper books was that large compared to ebooks, and thought the difference in price was reasonable. Ultimately this is a question about profit margins, and my assumption was that the profit margins on ebooks would be much higher than physical books. The best source I could find for this data is a post by Hugh Howey in which he references New Republic and Harper Collins showing what I assumed was true: contribution margins were 41.4% on hardcovers, and 75% on ebooks. I looked for the original New Republic article but couldn’t find it, neither could I find more recent or authoritative data. ↩︎