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Harper Collins and the Expiring E-book

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.


Mar. 1st, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
It sounds like an attack on libraries, to me, just like similar attacks in the past, but wrapped up in fancy, new-fangled technology. So the idea that a book wears out and falls apart after 26 check outs? Ridiculous. For a popular, continuously in-demand book, that would be just 26 months (one month is the usual check out time). Do publishers really think that libraries should replace every book in its collection every 26 months? No, don't think so. Also, after 26 months, most books are either out of print or not really selling that many copies. The motivation to buy rather than to check out library books is already provided by the limitation on the number of people who can check out copies. For a physical book, there are a limited number of copies available. You can wait six months to a year for a copy of a popular new best seller. For an ebook, library check out systems mimic that scarcity by limiting the number of people who can check out "an ebook" at one time, so you have to reserve and wait just as you would for a physical book. People who are willing to wait a year to check out your book are not likely to go and buy it in any case.

Limiting ebooks to 26 check outs is just a further imposition by the publisher on the buyer of the ebook. What they are doing is not going to increase sales to readers, it's going to decrease sales to libraries. My library has downloadable ebook and audio collections, but I never use them because there is too little material on there to be worth it. It is not worth searching their ebook and audio collections for download when I can simply request the physical book or CD much more easily, and obtain it more quickly. Add to that the fact that the software for downloading and managing the rights is kludgy and doesn't really work on all of my equipment, and borrowing ebooks is a total fail. And I'm not so sure that isn't the publisher's goal to begin with--to make library ebook lending unmanageable. Which would be fine, if we could continue to count on physical books being available in the same numbers they are now. But think what that means if/when epublishing becomes the dominant model. All of a sudden, something big is out in ebook only, and the only people who can access it are those who can afford to buy the ebook or those who live in a community with a library rich enough to accommodate the publisher's "license fees" for the book.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:04 pm (UTC)
How many times, on average, is a book checked out of a library before being replaced or taken out of circulation? I don't know the answer, so would love to get actual numbers/data to put this all in context.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's relevant because it assumes a library must acquire all of its collection new from the publisher and replace it when it wears out. Libraries also acquire books for their collections from donations in the community. If you look at a library as a shared community resource, rather than as an intermediary vendor to "customers" for the publisher, then there is no "fair" term that a book can be in collection before it "needs to be replaced."
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)
Regardless of where the book comes from, it still goes back to the fact that a print book is a physical object with a limited lifespan, whereas an electronic book is a file with a theoretically limitless life.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
The lifespan of any individual book is longer than any normal publisher's print run. I have books in my home in good shape from the mid-1800's. The idea that physical books need to be repurchased by libraries is not credible to me. In fact, my home library typically purchases a large number of copies of popular new books when they first come out, then sells off extra copies after the initial wave of interest wanes to keep just one or two in collection. Those one or two books remain on the shelves indefinitely. There is planned obsolescence date when they suddenly fall apart and "need to be replaced."
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC)
How often are you reading those books from the mid 1800s? The lifespan of the latest softcover romantic bestseller that has moved through a few dozen hands while being read in cafes, busses, etc. is going to be much shorter than the hard-bound book that sits mostly undisturbed in its home on a nice bookshelf in a private home.

Many people have no qualms about cracking spines and dog earing pages, and even the gentlest reader will crease a pb spine if they re-read the book often enough.

That said, I think 26 checkouts as a lifespace of a library's ebook copy is utter bull sh--.
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)
Most new books, especially paperbacks, are only on the shelf for a few months, though. Even a paperback that has been read in the bathtub and had lasagne slopped on it by each and every patron is going to outlast that same book's lifespan on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Seems like a cheap way for a publisher to try to get two or three sales for the price of one--and as others have pointed out, most libraries aren't actually going to replace the "expired" book.
Mar. 2nd, 2011 03:52 am (UTC)
Right, but - that's why trying to get an electronic copy to mimic a physical copy is a losing battle. Both in terms of trying to give the electronic copy a physical copy's lifespan...and in terms of trying to keep the point of sale model the same.
Mar. 2nd, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
Keep in mind too that many libraries repair books when they get damaged, in an effort to keep them on the shelves longer. Paperbacks, for instance, are often covered with a sticky, stiff plastic cover, to extend their shelf life. Hardcovers can be re-glued, have pages reattached, etc.
Mar. 2nd, 2011 04:04 am (UTC)
Libraries also sell weeded and donated books as fundraisers*. That paperback Goosebumps may not survive any more circs, but it's sale will pay for an SRP prize or two. Somehow I doubt, in their effort to try to get the ebooks to act more like physical books, HC is going to be terribly eager to let libraries auction off all the extra books that they have decided that they no longer need.

*and to those who are tempted to argue that these sales amounts to pennies. Our FOL has an annual budget of about $50,000. About 10% of that comes from book sales - both in branch and online.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
As a librarian, it isn't really based on uses. We buy multiple copies of best sellers, and start weeding them down when we get multiple copies sitting on the shelf rather than circulating. These tend to average somewhere in the thirties.

Books we take off because they are in poor condition can have many more uses; we can't tell how many on some of the older ones, because they predate our online library catalog. But 80-100 isn't uncommon.

Then there are the books that get pulled off during weeding because no one has checked them out in the last five years.

Note that this is fiction; nonfiction has criteria other than circulation/condition/number of copies on the shelf.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
It really depends on the book and how much space the library has to store them.

Small libraries don't have room to keep many books for long, large ones can keep books longer.

It is possible since Overdrive books can circ as little as one week for a popular bestselling book to hit 26 uses in 26 weeks. Other less popular titles might never get to 26.

Mar. 1st, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
It sounds like an attack on libraries, to me, just like similar attacks in the past, but wrapped up in fancy, new-fangled technology.

Agreed. I just don't see how short-sighted the publishers can be, given that book buyers are also often library users too.
Mar. 1st, 2011 05:30 pm (UTC)
Reading your comment made me realize that this is also adding to library cost in staff time.

Imagine having to keep track of which books are expiring and having to decide if you want to purchase a new copy of it or not. Especially if they're all going to be expiring at different, random times.
Mar. 1st, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
Good point. I hadn't thought of that.


Jim C. Hines

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