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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 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.


Jim C. Hines

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