You can get the latest from John Lescroart or Debbie Macomber on your e-reader free from the Contra Costa Library, but you'll have to wait.

On Tuesday, the waiting list for the digital version of Lescroart's "Damage" was 14 readers deep. The e-line for Macomber's "Sandpiper Way" was at 49. With checkout times of seven or 14 days, it could be summer before either book was delivered to your Kindle, iPad or other device.

There are approximately 1,500 e-books and a similar number of audio books available online from the library, and they're flying off the virtual shelves. Of the nearly 3,000 e-book and audio book titles online, 2,558 were checked out this week, said library Information Systems Project Manager Paula MacKinnon.

The good news is many patrons return books early, so the wait might be shorter. The library is adding new titles every month via an online server called OverDrive. Also, unlimited copies of more than 15,000 classics are available to download free via Project Gutenberg.

"We do multiple copies of popular stuff," MacKinnon said.

The bad news is that e-books are still a wild frontier. Many major publishers are either refusing to sell titles to libraries or charging a premium -- sometimes near $100 for a single title. Add a library materials budget that in the past three years was cut by 56 percent, and balancing digital versus paper copies can get complicated, said Deputy County Librarian Cathy Sanford.


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"This has been one of the most challenging situations we have had in years in libraries, and that's not just here. That's libraries everywhere," she said.

Sanford said the county library's decision makers are striving to serve a public in which many customers want both forms of reading.

"Stewardship is very important to us," she said. "This is taxpayers' money and we want to spend it well."

Contra Costa Library has been carrying virtual books since 2000, but a recent surge in e-reader availability has increased demand. In January 2011, 1,262 patrons checked out at least one downloadable eBook or audio book. The number more than doubled for January of this year. Some 2,720 patrons checked out at least one downloadable title in January. Christmas brought the flood of new e-patrons.

"The number between early December and January was a humongous jump," said Liz Fuller, senior county library manager at the Brentwood branch. "Every day you get someone coming in."

She means literally coming into the library for help downloading the digital content. With a half dozen popular devices to serve and readers still trying to figure out their new gadgets, the process of downloading a book can be daunting. Help is available in the form of guides for specific devices at the library's website (http://ccclib.org/). Happily, the online guide seems to be working for most people, MacKinnon said.

"The majority are figuring it out on their own," she said.

For those who aren't, the library offers email and phone help. Finally, libraries throughout Contra Costa are offering e-reader workshops. The Antioch Branch has one scheduled at 3 p.m. March 1 in the Prewett Branch. Fuller said Brentwood and Oakley plan to host similar groups in the next few months.

Meanwhile, a program to bring e-readers to 10 local seniors is on track, with training in progress. Those seniors should be reading in a few weeks.

Although there's been a surge in e-book checkouts, Fuller doesn't see physical libraries and paper books disappearing any time soon.

"Our circulation keeps going up even with the physical books," she said. "I think (the e-book demand) is additional."

E-BOOK HELP
For information on upcoming e-book workshops, a how-to guide and a listing of digital content (which includes e-books, audio books, music and videos), go to http://ccclib.org.