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Harper Collins and the Expiring E-book

Snoopy

From Library Journal: “In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.”  The idea is that this matches the average number of times a print book can be checked out before it falls apart and needs to be replaced.

As you might have guessed, this has not gone over well.  There’s the usual cry to boycott the publisher, lots of anger, a Twitter hashtag, and plenty of accusations that HC is stuck in the past and doesn’t understand the future of publishing.

My agent weighs in here: “I’m of mixed emotion on this. I don’t think it’s prima facie a heinous thing to do because businesses do need to adjust to changing business models … On the other hand, it pisses off customers.”

I came across one author suggesting that the idea itself wasn’t necessarily bad, but 26 copies was too few.  I.e., it’s not the principle of the thing, but the numbers.

I’m still thinking about the implications.  I love libraries, both as a reader and an author.  Libraries buy my books, and they allow readers to discover my work.  Realistically, unrestricted e-book lending could decrease the number of my books libraries buy.  If those books never wear out or expire, a library could keep all of my work in circulation forever.  Which would be really, really cool on the one hand … but could also cut into sales, and I like being able to pay my mortgage.

Two things I’m pretty firm on are:

  1. Authors deserve to be paid fairly for their work.  So do publishers and agents.
  2. I like libraries very much, and I don’t want to lose the service they provide to the community.

I keep coming back to the Public Lending Right (PLR) system used in a number of non-U.S. countries.  Basically, PLR is an author’s “legal right to payment from government each time their books are borrowed from public libraries.”  Such a system would eliminate the source of contention, at least from the authors’ perspective.  If I get paid for each checkout of my books, then by all means, keep all of my e-books forever!

I think it would be fair to split such payment with the publisher and agent as well.  And we’re probably not talking about a huge amount of cash here, at least for nonbestselling authors like myself.  But I really like the principle of the thing.

Actually implementing it could be a problem.  Libraries, like many public services, continue to be targeted for massive budget cuts these days.  I asked a librarian friend for her thoughts, and she suggested it would require some sort of tax to cover those PLR payments.  Not likely to happen any time soon, given the current political environment in the U.S.  (If things continue, I imagine a lot of libraries will have to close, which could make the whole thing moot.)

I don’t know the best way to be fair to libraries and their patrons as well as to authors and publishers.  Maybe it would be better to switch to a rental model where libraries pay an annual fee for the right to lend out a certain number of e-book titles from publisher X.  Older books could be removed from the list over time, replaced by newer and more popular releases.

I’m sure there are flaws with that plan, too.  I don’t have the answers.  But I’d love to hear what other folks think, particularly my author and librarian friends.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

mtlawson
Mar. 1st, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC)
Annual license fees might be the way to go, but at the same time the costs have to be less than what they're paying for books now. One book could last decades with proper care --I see plenty of them around the library branches I frequent-- but that will also allow a library to adjust the number of licenses based on circulation rates.

But I also think that libraries are going to be hit very hard this next year. Excellent library systems are going to get gutted so that people don't have to pay new taxes. Which sucks big time.
rimrunner
Mar. 1st, 2011 02:55 pm (UTC)
Ironically, in my experience (which is in academia; see my comment below), the electronic license usually costs MORE than a print copy of the same thing, on the assumption that an electronic copy will have more readers.

But Overdrive only allows one user of a particular e-book at a time. If HC is charging more for the privilege of 26 discrete uses of an e-book than the same thing would cost in print, I wouldn't sign that license.
mtlawson
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC)
But Overdrive only allows one user of a particular e-book at a time. If HC is charging more for the privilege of 26 discrete uses of an e-book than the same thing would cost in print, I wouldn't sign that license.

Right. That would be cutting off your nose to spite your face, because that would not only kill eBooks for libraries but also prevent libraries from adapting to a changing world.
sylvia_rachel
Mar. 1st, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That explains something that's been puzzling me about the Overdrive MP3 audiobooks I get from the public library, which is that I frequently have to put a book on hold. (This may also be explained somewhere on the library's website, but if so I've never discovered where.)
julieandrews
Mar. 1st, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
I work in a public library. And yes, the downloadable audiobooks cost considerably more than their CD counterparts. And the HC ebooks cost more than the library could get the print books. (Based on discounts from Baker & Taylor, Ingram, etc.)

And some publishers are charging way more than if you popped over to Amazon to buy the Kindle version. (Or trying to charge way more.)

Libraries are in the process of building their ebook collections. People are still at the stage where nearly any ebook that fits their genre interests is worth checking out. We can afford at this point to only deal with the publishers that seem to have reasonable prices.

By this I mean.. after Christmas, all of our ebooks were checked out. We kept adding and adding. And they'd get checked out nearly immediately. People wanted to try out their new ereaders. And suddenly there were a lot more patrons using the system.

So does it make sense to buy 1 expensive, if popular, ebook, or to buy the 3 or 4 you could get from another publisher for the same cost?

Does it make sense to buy a book that's going to expire in a year, or to buy one that won't?
jimhines
Mar. 1st, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC)
"...the costs have to be less than what they're paying for books now."

Or equivalent in the long term. I.e., something that ends up being roughly the same as it would cost to keep a title in circulation, including replacement/repair costs if needed.

"Which sucks big time."

Yes. Also, yes.
mtlawson
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:38 pm (UTC)
Or equivalent in the long term. I.e., something that ends up being roughly the same as it would cost to keep a title in circulation, including replacement/repair costs if needed.

Right. Paperbacks don't last that long in circulation*, but those hardbacks will stick around for upwards of 50 years if you don't do anything stupid to them. Going with software licensing models --without support contracts, as none are needed-- might prove to be the best option.


Yes. Also, yes.

For all of those who are shortsighted enough to gut the library system, they deserve the poor schools and lack of long term local sustainability that they get. Our local governor has been doing his own cutting to "improve the business climate", but at the same time Ohio is losing the very people that they normally want to keep: the smart kids who will go to college and get good jobs and pay the nice taxes. Well, why should they stick around if they see the schools being cut, arts and libraries being gutted, and basic services being cut?


*And I'll freely admit that I take really good care of my own paperbacks, so they can last a long time too. When my oldest started reading The Belgariad I refused to give her my copies; they were the original print releases and still in good shape.

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