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


  1. these practices won't last long
    Like it or not the days of publishers as gatekeepers of books distribution are counted

  2. I think there's a strong chance that you're right; it will hurt their sales simply because libraries can't afford to buy e-books on these terms. It will also promote piracy. What we've already seen in music and video, a lesson the entertainment industry has been very resistant to but which is the basis of the success of iTunes, is that given a choice, end-users will prefer legal copies at a fair price to pirate copies--but they won't meekly be skinned simply because the rights-owners think they have the power and the right to do so.

    Most people are okay with reasonable DRM, that is only aimed at protecting the rights-holders' real rights, even though the evidence is fairly strong that it's unnecessary in sales to the end-user. And in a library context, DRM that ensures that the borrowed e-book doesn't become permanently resident on the borrower's device is reasonable.

    Insisting that an e-book can have none of the natural advantages of e-books over print, and in fact need to "wear out" much faster that print copies--that's insane.

    And it's going to hurt them not only in lost sales to libraries that can't afford this nonsense. Right now, a book, whether print or e-book, remains in the library for years, promoting the author to new readers long past the time that book was "popular" and readily available in bookstores. I'm not alone in discovering new authors I'd never have paid to try in the library. Under this new scheme, though, even the smaller number of e-copies HarperCollins "sells" under these terms won't, as they fondly imagine, be re-"purchased" after the twenty-six loans are used up. Under these terms, a book costs a library $1 a loan--and that's prohibitively expensive for something that's not new and popular.

    HarperCollins is proposing to eat its seed corn.

  3. If I may be blunt, what utter BS on HarperCollins' part. There is absolutely no reason for this. Big, traditional publishers are running scared and now want to dictate how people read and not just what they read.

    Expect a backlash. It's a good thing that (although they may think otherwise) traditional publishers don't have the corner market on ebooks. The true pioneers of ebooks are the indie publishers that have done it since the 1990s can be much more realistic in this area rather than pull such nonsense.

  4. That is ridiculous! As an author, I'm already bitter toward HarperCollins because they held my manuscript exclusively for almost a year, sent me through three complete revisions and still rejected me even though the book already had a movie option. They said and I quote "Superhero movies make more money than superhero books." Now I can see where their jealousy of the entertainment industry is coming in. I'm happy I didn't sign with them!

  5. Corporate publishers no longer have a monopoly on printed books. POD is now producing at least 3 times more books than the corporations, which also usually cheated most of their authors by not providing any promotion at all. And POD books do get into the chains. The big losers in all this will be the Germans who own a very large percentage of all publishing in America. Ach du lieber und auf wiedersehen, Baertelsmann.

  6. Bad move for HarperCollins. Good news for independent authors.

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