Self-destructing eBooks rile librarians

A publisher's new policy forces libraries to repurchase eBooks after 26 check-outs.

A move by publisher HarperCollins, which would cap eBook loans from public libraries at 26 check-outs before requiring the library to repurchase the eBook, has school and public librarians worried about how such a policy will affect strained library budgets.

The new policy comes after HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., said it has “serious concerns that our previous eBook policy, selling eBooks to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging eBook ecosystem, hurt the growing eBook channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.”

Libraries can lend out an eBook from the publisher 26 times—“a year of availability for titles with the highest demand, and much longer for other titles and core backlist,” according to a statement from HarperCollins—before the eBook will expire and vanish. Libraries then would have to repurchase the book, although HarperCollins said the price would be “significantly” lower.

But many librarians are upset and say the change will put a huge strain on already cash-strapped school and public libraries.

New Jersey librarian Andy Woodworth started a petition on challenging HarperCollins to drop its controversial new policy. As of press time, 67,978 people had signed the petition.

In an eMail interview with eSchool News, Woodworth said he understands HarperCollins’ position in its official statement, because the company is “working to ensure its own future to publish books (both eBooks and paper), to develop and market literary talent, and to protect authors from piracy and copyright infringement.”

The issue lies with the method the publisher is using to protect its interests, he said.

“I believe limited eBook checkouts hurt the overall market by placing limitations on libraries and readership, as well as interfere with the cultural preservation mission of libraries,” Woodworth said. “Artificial scarcity is moving in the opposite direction of the digital age and something that will be universally rejected by the online world.”

Some who signed the petition also left comments lamenting the HarperCollins policy.

“Until you create paper books that self-destruct after so many readings, don’t institute such a policy with eBooks,” wrote Cynthia Winfield.

Emily Thomas wrote: “In a time in which libraries, faced with budget cuts, are struggling to keep services available to all, these limited-use eBooks are deplorable. Protect our libraries and please reconsider this policy.”

And commenter Elliot Polinsky’s short but to-the-point statement expressed his exact feelings about the policy: “Physical books last a lot longer than 26 reads… This is sleaze-ball.”

The change likely will be felt equally among school and public libraries.

“A book license that expires still leaves someone without it, whether [that person is] a member of the public or a high school student trying to finish a report. In some cases, that expired license might be a book that is not part of the curriculum anymore or outdated by something else; it may never be intended to be re-ordered,” Woodworth said. “I really can’t imagine trying to order eBooks for the school library and having to consider whether or not to set aside money to re-license titles or to buy other titles that students might be looking for that school year. I don’t think this restriction helps the collection development of any library—school or public or otherwise.”

American Library Association (ALA) statistics indicate that 66 percent of public libraries report offering free access to eBooks for their library users, up from 38 percent three years ago.

“Crafting 21st-century solutions for equitable access to information while ensuring authors and publishers have a fair return on their investments is our common goal. The transition to the eBook format should not result in less availability,” said ALA President Roberta Stevens.

“The marketplace for eBooks is changing rapidly. We encourage publishers to look to libraries as a vehicle to reach and grow diverse audiences,” she added.

Through the petition, Woodworth said he hopes to convince HarperCollins to drop its limited check-out policy “in favor of another lending model that is more in line with the digital age and more permissive for libraries.”

Woodworth said publishers and libraries can strike a balance while incorporating flexible lending models and lower price points on eBooks. Future lending models might include a library charging a fee for new eBook releases. Some libraries already charge for DVDs and similar materials, and charging a nominal fee for new eBook releases might help offset some of the cost, he said.

“It’s a matter of creating the conditions for the least amount of resistance for someone to purchase or borrow an eBook as opposed to trying to pirate it. Lest people forget, reading leads to more reading. It leads people to buy the books that they want to keep, whether they are physical or digital,” he said. “The question that should motivate both groups is this: ‘What can I do today to put our book in a reader’s hand?’ That should be the question that drives library eBook lending models as well as retail decisions.”

Woodworth said he hopes that librarians and publishing companies can come to develop closer relationships and collaborate to offer the best of both worlds as technology changes the way libraries and publishing traditionally have operated.

“It behooves librarians to seek out these new partnerships and to form new connections with the industries and businesses that are our proverbial next-door neighbors,” he said.

HarperCollins officials said they consulted librarians, as well as literary agents and distributors, before enacting the policy. The publisher said that libraries and library distributors are welcome to eMail to continue the conversation around the recent policy change.

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