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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 03:12 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.
Mar. 1st, 2011 03:23 pm (UTC)
"Criminals" is probably too strong a term, but you're right, it feels "adversarial." I suppose I'm still a little crabby about the DRM issue and letting it colour my perceptions of a lot of this rigamarole (hey, let's assume that everyone is trying to steal books! And then frustrate the hell out of legitimate buyers, and make it so that no one can lend this new book format! Wait, you mean you're NOT okay with that...? Oops)

Yes, I meant that the library would be paying the subscription. I can see a Netflix model for eBooks working privately - there's already a few services that are trying to do something like that, with peer-to-peer book lending on Nook and Kindle - but also for a library, wherein they buy a license and get to lend (a) a certain number of "reads" from a given publisher or (b) a certain number of titles from that publisher or (c) some combination of the two - you could even tier the prices based on access levels and number of "reads," which could help out cash-strapped libraries.

But that might be logical.
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC)
wherein they buy a license and get to lend (a) a certain number of "reads" from a given publisher or (b) a certain number of titles from that publisher or (c) some combination of the two - you could even tier the prices based on access levels and number of "reads," which could help out cash-strapped libraries.

I like this idea, if we can fund it, and the fees are reasonable. Since it both pays the publisher/author AND seems to have the least annoyance for the reader.
Mar. 1st, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC)
The question would be how much the publisher/author gets from this model. I think you could structure it much the same way as a standard royalty. For instance:

-Library pays, say, $100 for a license that entitles them to lend out 200 "reads" of any eBook made available by Publisher. When they've lent 200 "reads" of that publisher's titles (could be 200 of one title; could be 1 of one title and 199 of another; could be...you get the picture), they have to buy a new license.

-Publisher gets that $100, minus any distribution fees from a network like Overdrive created to serve this system.

-Author gets a percentage of that net licensing revenue, based on how often his/her book was read out of those 200 "reads". Yes, the $100 was for access to any eBook the publisher makes available to libraries, but this is digital. We can track what books are actually checked out, so we can give the appropriate percentage to the appropriate author. It would involve some more bookkeeping on the part of the publisher, but it's no more insurmountable than, say, working out percentages on an anthology sale...just takes a few minutes and some good accounting software.

Readers would love it because you can get a loaned copy of whatever books the publisher makes available as Library eCopies. Libraries would love it because you could choose what licensing level works for your demographic, and therefore buy the most affordable pack - and if you had access to a publisher's entire electronic list through that license, you could offer up a lot more books. If one proved particularly popular, you could either order more licenses just for that book, or you could buy a couple print copies...

Now, if only there were a way to actually put this in place, hah.
Mar. 2nd, 2011 04:09 am (UTC)
"But that might be logical."

And historical! I mean, what is netflix but a modern version of the subscription libraries of the 19th century?

So yeah, I think it makes sense for the publishing industry to go that way overall, and then for the government to subsidize access to knowledge for it's citizens by A) creating a way to pay for certain subscription fees (via existing public libraries) and B) working with the publishers to archive all these books.
Mar. 2nd, 2011 01:47 pm (UTC)
I keep pointing out that there's nothing new under the sun in many of these publishing models. They're just way easier to put back in place courtesy of digital technology. Feck, when my company has a big enough library, I'm thinking of offering a subscription access version for e-reading, so long as I can figure out how to divvy up royalties appropriately.

Really, that's the only issue - making sure authors are paid appropriately and fairly when/if a publisher opens up its entire catalogue to subscribers. Might involve more up-front payments and fewer royalties, rather than the current way things are going with low advances and (hopefully) higher royalties. Either that, or revenue-share of some sort.


Jim C. Hines

My Books


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