Friday, February 25, 2011

E-Books, Libraries, and HarperCollins' Anti-Library Announcement

Today the word spread through the library community that HarperCollins has declared war on library lending of e-books. Initially librarians had a letter from Overdrive, cast in relentlessly positive terms, that nevertheless contained the shocking information that "some publishers" had demanded a new restriction on e-book lending: In addition to treating each e-book as a single physical copy, that can be loaned to only one person at a time, e-books will now also "wear out"; after twenty-six loans, the copy goes poof, and if the library wishes to continue to lend that book, they must buy it again.

Physical copies don't wear out and fall apart after only twenty-six lendings. When they do start to wear out, libraries can repair them. When the library does decide to deaccession those books, they can put them in the book sale. And libraries normally purchase physical copies at a small discount, or they pay extra for library binding, which means the book will be more physically durable.

Libraries don't get that discount on e-books. They pay more for them than the individual buyer does. And when they decide they no longer need a particular title, they can't resell it in the library book sale. The one advantage is that it's not going to wear out, that it can keep circulating, without repair, for as long as the library needs it to.

Now HarperCollins is saying no, that e-book is going to "wear out" faster and more catastrophically than any normal physical copy. It's no longer selling e-books to libraries; it's renting them, and it's a very expensive rental. One has to wonder what the Powers That Be at HarperCollins think about all those physical copies circulating for as long as they physically last, or used book stores, buying and selling physical copies after the original purchaser no longer wants them.

I believe that the fundamental problem here is that the publishing industry has largely been swallowed up by the entertainment industry. Publishing has never had the profit margins that the movies and television consider normal, and the entertainment conglomerates are frustrated by this. They're also deeply committed to achieving, as far as possible, a pay-per-view world. Everyone expects to pay to see a movie every time they go to the theater to see it, even if they do that a hundred times. You can't legally record it for your own use. TV is still mostly free-to-watch; even if you pay for cable, you mostly don't pay extra for each show--but that's because the advertisers are paying for it. And with pay-per-view movies and specials, you do pay for one or a limited number of viewings or a limited time period of access; you don't get to "keep" that show forever, for the most part. Movies and television bitterly resisted the VCR; they've made their peace with it and its descendants now, but remember they get a kickback for each blank media you purchase.

The entertainment conglomerates now own most of the publishing industry, and they're attempting to impose this model on publishing. In this frame, libraries look like an outrage. The experiences of publishers (as different as National Academies Press and Baen Books) that free or cheap access to e-books actually boosts the sales of print copies is irrelevant, in fact incomprehensible to them.

Libraries, as they always have, are moving forward with the new technology, attempting to make all kinds and formats of information and reading material available to the users despite terrible budget crunches. HarperCollins, with the rest of the publishing industry likely following close behind, is choosing to make that harder, and cripple libraries' ability to serve the needs of their users. But libraries are where young readers and new readers, who don't yet have the money and the commitment to reading to go out and buy their books, develop that taste and that need. Write off the young readers and the new readers, and the publishers will lose them not for a few years, but forever, as they take themselves off to other kinds of entertainment.

This unfortunate development is going to affect my willingness to review or purchase HarperCollins titles. I hope and trust it will also affect the willingness of libraries to purchase HarperCollins titles. This is an anti-library and anti-reader stance, and it deserves to be punished in the marketplace.

Update: A message from OverDrive on HarperCollins' new eBook licensing terms

Some links for further reading on the subject:
HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Circulations
Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back
The Publisher of Tolkien Has Taken a Business Lesson From Sauron
Let's Play Rent-A-Book!
Friday Alert: HarperCollins in cagematch with Macmillan to see who can alienate readers better