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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.


( 101 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 1st, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC)
Library books really only get circulated 26 times? That seems odd to me. I have plenty of books that have been read more than 26 times and are still in fine shape.

Mar. 1st, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC)
I couldn't say. My guess is we're talking about an average. A well-bound hardcover would probably survive a lot longer, and a mass-market paperback might fall apart after fewer trips out the door. You'd have to ask librarians for a better critique on the numbers, though.
(no subject) - rhyana - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rhyana - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
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.
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvia_rachel - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julieandrews - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 1st, 2011 02:51 pm (UTC)
I work in the academic sector, where we haven't seen this sort of thing happen yet, but my observation is that nobody, no publisher, no library, no vendor, has really figured out the Best Way to Do This yet. However, where electronic content is concerned, we're already mostly going with a licensing model, with the ironic result that for my library at least, about three-quarters of our overall acquisitions budget is spent on stuff we don't actually own.

Now most academics of my acquaintance would be DELIGHTED if ANYONE read their work 26 times, and monetary compensation for academic publications is not the norm (you're doin' it for love and tenure, if you're one of the roughly one-quarter to one-third of academics in this country lucky enough to have the latter option, but that's another rant), so something like the HC deal isn't something I expect to have to deal with anytime soon.

I think public libraries especially (which this licensing change will disproportionately affect; I can't remember the last time I bought a HarperCollins book for my collection) see this as yet another attempt to cut them out. It's not really, unlike some publishers and vendors (coughAMAZONcough) who won't deal with libraries at all. But 26 seems low to me. A single print copy of a popular book will circulate many more times than that before being replaced, and the library might even rebind it instead, though that's becoming increasingly rare.

I also think that in this brave new world of licensing content rather than buying it outright, there's little sense in my profession of what's "fair". There's certainly no industry standard, and libraries are immediately suspicious of anything that might have the effect of curtailing use or costing us more. (I dunno about popular e-books, but I already pay more for electronic content than I would pay for the same thing in print, and that's not unusual. It makes me wonder what HarperCollins charges for a single e-book title license. I'd be willing to bet that this new 26-loans restrictions does not come with a price break. If it did, it might be easier to swallow.)
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:03 pm (UTC)
Academic publishing is definitely a different kind of beast. I think my masters thesis is probably still available at Eastern Michigan, and I'd be amazed if it had been checked out more than twice :-)

What you're saying makes a lot of sense, with regard to not knowing what's fair, and the general sense of fear from libraries, publishers, authors ... pretty much everyone involved. And yes, the pricing for the 26-loan license would make a huge difference.

Amazon won't deal with libraries? What the heck is that about?
(no subject) - eseme - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rimrunner - Mar. 1st, 2011 06:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankewehner - Mar. 1st, 2011 08:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rimrunner - Mar. 1st, 2011 10:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennygadget - Mar. 2nd, 2011 03:46 am (UTC) - Expand
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.
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shekkara - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennygadget - Mar. 2nd, 2011 03:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rarelylynne - Mar. 2nd, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennygadget - Mar. 2nd, 2011 04:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shana - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jeffreyab - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julieandrews - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 1st, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC)
I know a couple of people who are really upset by this, while I'm...not. I'm definitely in the "sounds like a good plan, but those numbers are ridiculous" corner, and it sounds like where they're ultimately trying to go is somewhere similar to where software licensing is now. I would back that up with facts, but all I know about software licensing is that it's why only seven computers at my college can be using Mathematica at a time...
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
I definitely get that a lot of groups -- libraries, publishers, authors, etc -- are nervous right now, and likely to react strongly to anything that feels like an attack. And I don't know the details of the HC licensing agreement, so I have no idea how reasonable it is or isn't.

But it also makes sense to me that the e-book model can't be based solely on what worked for print, and software sales/licensing seems like a logical place to look. (So long as people keep in mind that some software licenses and agreements are utterly asinine, and try to avoid the worst abuses...)
Mar. 1st, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
In all my years working in libraries, I think we've replaced a worn-out book maybe a dozen times. Normally, when a book wore out, we just discarded it.

I actually think e-books will be a boon to writers and publishers with respect to libraries, even if they last forever and don't need to be replaced.

You see, libraries right now generally aren't as limited by their budget to buy books as they are by their space to keep those books. The e-book solves that problem. And, as long as the library is following the "one copy in circulation at a time" model, in-demand new books will probably see additional copies purchased. That means our books will not only have more copies sold, but also will be in more libraries, improving the exposure of mid-list authors.

Of course, I don't have a crystal ball, but I don't think trying to find ways to make e-books imitate the flaws of paper will help publishers and authors nearly as much as embracing what the technology is good at.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
Well said!
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nekomata - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mrs_norris_mous - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julieandrews - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC)
The principle of the PLR, especially if publishers and agents get a cut, is a very, very good one. But you're right, implementation is a serious problem.

I think the reason I, personally, got so upset when I heard about the Harper Collins thing is that it feels rather like another extension of the publishing industry's tendency to treat customers as criminals - assuming that people are going to abuse the system, pirate books, not buy additional library copies, etc. It FEELS like they're saying that checking a book out of the library is a lost sale, and therefore anathema.

Which it isn't, and I think most publishers realize this; they just don't seem to realize how a lot of their actions, like restricting lending on eBooks or baking in DRM, is construed by their customer base. It's alienating.

I could be okay with restricting the number of times an eBook could be lent, but I do agree that 26 times feels awfully low. Especially since, IIRC, eBooks are not discounted for library purchase like paperbacks are.

The rental/"Netflix" model for library eBooks is the most middle-ground suggestion I've heard, and one that I think all sides could probably agree upon, assuming they worked out the logistics. Which is always the hard part.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. My gut reaction wasn't that the HC agreement treated readers like criminals, but there is an adversarial feel to it all. (And to clarify, that's just *my* feeling -- I'm not trying to say anyone else is wrong to feel criminalized or angry.)

The Netflix model is another interesting idea. Hm ... I don't know. I like the fact that libraries provide books free to patrons, and I'd hate to see people shut out of that. Or did you mean that the library would be the one paying the subscription, not patrons? That makes more sense.

"...assuming they worked out the logistics. Which is always the hard part."

Ugh. And I imagine it's going to be a slow and ugly process no matter which directly we ultimately end up going in.
(no subject) - firynze - Mar. 1st, 2011 03:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beccastareyes - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firynze - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennygadget - Mar. 2nd, 2011 04:09 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firynze - Mar. 2nd, 2011 01:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
"Paid fairly" is an ill-defined term. In economics terms, "paid fairly" is what the market will bear, and the government certainly isn't going to know what that is.

The main problem I see is that all this does is privilege illegal downloading. Right now for some video games you can download a game illegally and possibly get a virus, or you can buy a game which definitely installs a virus (designed to make sure you aren't pirating), doesn't work if your internet stops working and requires you to keep the CD on hand. This idea just says "hey, either you can go out of your way to go to a library and borrow a book that will expire frequently, or you can stay home and read the book for free with no restrictions."

The marginal cost of distribution is very nearly free. Trying to make distribution not-free will never work, because it is free. Whatever payment model is adopted it has to add value rather than take it away, which has succeeded with Steam, iTunes and Netflix.

In fact, I'm still hoping for a Netflix for books; it would do the same thing you are suggesting (flat price for joining, proportional payment to authors and publishers), but without the government stepping in and setting prices (which never goes well.) Movies are now $8 for all you can watch in a month; as consumption increases, cost per unit can decline, and it offers access to back catalogs that were never previously profitable enough to keep in print. I'm loving watching old tv shows and obscure German independent films. Bit torrent is only good for popular works, so access to non-popular works is a good way to add value.

Of course, access to those works could also be accomplished by reforming intellectual property laws so that we had a public domain again. But since clearly that's never going to happen, eventually publishers will figure out how to stop trying to turn the internet into physical books and instead figure out how to make money off books on the internet.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC)
Bestselling ebooks are probably going to hit 26 in less than a year. So the library will have to order more as it would with a paper book.

Midlist ebooks might stay in the collection forever without ever hitting 26 circulations. Which means they stay in the collection, something a paper copy midlist book might not do.
Mar. 5th, 2011 05:16 pm (UTC)
With Overdrive, one book can only be read by one reader at a time. If it circulates for two weeks, and is constantly checked out, it will expire in a year when the 27th person tries to read it. So if they want to offer a popular book and not have a long wait list, they have to purchase two or more digital copies.

The fact is, library budgets are either flat or falling, so if a library replaces a digital copy, that will prevent them buying another book. This won't increase sales for publishers, in other words. It just makes libraries unable to do with digital books what they have always done with print books, which is why it feels like an attach on the very idea of libraries.
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
"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."

They are lowballing in the extreme. My Mom ran an elementary school library - adverse circumstances - and books got checked out more than that before needing repairs.

Either that or they are admitting a sharp decline in product quality. I know they abandoned "library bound" copies long ago, but there are books on the shelves in Chicago which date back decades.

Mar. 1st, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC)
Most librarians will attest that even a mass market paperback can usually be circulated more than that, I believe.

26 checkouts will get the book only lasting a year or two if it's in continual circulation.

I currently have a book on my shelf that's been checked out from a library that was printed in 1914.

The other thing is, this isn't going to necessarily cause libraries to buy more books.

Say you have a middlingly popular book, so it takes it 5 years to get to 26 checkouts (which I think is highly unlikely, particularly as it's been pointed out that you can't flip through an ebook the way you can a print, so some people check them out so they can figure out whether or not they want to read the book). At the end of the 5 years, I think it highly unlikely that the library will purchase another copy of the book, as demand has very likely decreased for it, so it's not worth the expense to them to get a book that will now take ten years of quite low demand and then still expire. Sure, it doesn't take up shelf space, at least, but that's not enough to justify the expense.

With a print book, once a library buys it they own it. They can weed it out and toss it or keep lending it, and it's not really going to affect the publisher, who's already gotten the money from that book purchase.

Yes, eventually the book will probably fall apart...but unless the demand is really high I don't know in how many of those circumstances the library will buy a new copy of that same book. Therefore all that being able to keep the book 'forever' (until ebook formats change dramatically or something like that) means is that it can still see circulation without having to be discarded. And honestly, I think that still helps the publisher, for all the reasons that I don't think publishers should generally be anti-library (even if it leads people to check out the book at no further benefit to the publisher rather than purchasing a new copy).
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:29 pm (UTC)
And then there's also the whole issue that HC apparently has with the library's card issuance policy:

In addition, our publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.).

There are all sorts of legitimate concerns that come up as a result of that particular paragraph.

I've found this post: http://librarianinblack.net/librarianinblack/2011/02/library-ebook-revolution-begin.html to be quite good.
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - snowishness - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennygadget - Mar. 2nd, 2011 04:15 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
I live in Finland and we got the PLR system last year. Each time a book is borrowed, the author (or their next of kin) gets one cent. If it's a translated book, the translator and the author will split the money.

The lowest amount that is paid at one time is 20 euros.
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:32 pm (UTC)
In this discussion on AW, I suggested a model whereby the library buys a license for a flat fee, then 'usage bundles' for a certain number of check-outs. That way, they wouldn't have to limit the number of check-outs at one time.

For example, when the next Stephen King novel comes out, a library system would pay $X for the license, and could choose the bundle of usage instances they wanted. If they estimated that they'd probably get 500 check-outs, they'd buy 500 usage instances. If 100 people wanted it on the first day, all 100 could get it.

When the number of usage instaces got low, they could buy another bundle or just let it expire.

These would be pre-paid, non-returnable, so the publisher and author get paid, no returns, always a copy of the book available.

If I do say so myself, I think this idea has 'win' written all over it. :-D
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:38 pm (UTC)
Sorry, that was me. I didn't realise I wasnt't logged in. :-)
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - teriegarrison - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - snowishness - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Mar. 1st, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rarelylynne - Mar. 2nd, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:52 pm (UTC)
I think one thing that really bugs me about this business of publishers controlling the number of checkouts is that libraries are supposed to be a permanent repository for books and knowledge in general. Libraries are limited in the number of physical books they can hold in their collection, so there is always a trade-off made between shelf space and what the patrons want, on the one hand, and keeping books that are important so that the community will have access to them in perpetuity. It is a sad and unfortunate thing that libraries get rid of books that are not checked out frequently enough, because it is exactly those obscure volumes that will be hard to find when a student or member of the community needs it.

Ebooks provide a means for having books in collection perpetuity, but ONLY if they don't explode after a certain predetermined number of uses (or passage of time). As with the limitation on shelf space, libraries will be unlikely to renew "licenses" on books that have expired. What if the book expires and the publisher has gone out of business and is not there to re-license the book. I think the archiving function of a library should be placed in priority over the profits of a publisher (or even the author).
Mar. 1st, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
Yes, the implications of this policy for the archiving function of libraries are deeply problematic.

I work for a publisher (non-profit, academic), so I am sympathetic to publishers' desire to cover first-copy costs and, like, not go out of business. But somebody needs to keep this material in, if not circulation, at least existence, and traditionally that's been the province of libraries. (Publishers keep archival copies, too, but not in places where the public can get at them.) Giving e-books away for chump change is not the way to go, IMO, but nor is restricting use of them unreasonably, and 26 uses seems to me unreasonable.
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 1st, 2011 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dulcinbradbury - Mar. 1st, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvia_rachel - Mar. 1st, 2011 11:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennygadget - Mar. 2nd, 2011 04:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mmegaera - Mar. 1st, 2011 09:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 1st, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
One of the things HC doesn't take into account is that when a print library book is worn out, it might very well be replaced by a copy a patron donated.

You can't do that with ebooks. At least with the current business models.
Mar. 1st, 2011 06:21 pm (UTC)
Also, the push towards rebinding in major libraries. Book repair is its own huge thing (I was trying to maintain a paperback collection stored in terrible conditions and barely poked the surface), but as long as high-quality paper and ink are used book lifespans can be extended.

And I bet many books pulled out of circulation go to book sales; I know I clean up at them. All the articles I could find on actual replacement rates were ironically locked behind paywalls, however.
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Jim C. Hines


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