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:
- Authors deserve to be paid fairly for their work. So do publishers and agents.
- 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.
March 1, 2011 @ 11:40 am
I actually don’t think a rental model is out of the question. My own library doesn’t do it, but the library my father worked for for the last several years does a similar thing with movies/DVDs. I think it used to be like 50 cents or a dollar a night, maybe different rates for educational DVDs, I don’t remember. And I’ve heard of a number of libraries in my area that do it with video games.
I also think that a limited number of circulations is maybe ok, but I don’t think 26 is really fair. I’m pretty sure most books get checked out far more than 26 times before they’re retired. I still have books from my childhood–really really cheap, mass market paperbacks of the Chronicles of Narnia–that I beat up heavily (dogeared corners, torn corners, the whole bit). By fifth grade (1995) I had tallied up that I had read the entire series something like 45 times (I used to reread the series, or some portion of it, once a month. My dad wouldn’t let me do it more often than that.). At a guess I have probably read those copies of the books over 200 times by now,and they look no worse than a large number of books that my library has in circulation. Hardbacks, or books I got when I was older and more careful, should last even longer. I don’t know what the “right” number is, but 26 seems awfully stingy.
Jim C. Hines
March 1, 2011 @ 11:44 am
I think it also depends on what the exact terms were. Did HC offer a price break for those 26 rentals, or did they expect the equivalent to full cover price? I’ve been polling some librarian folks on LJ, and the general consensus is that 26 is probably too low, though a lot depends on the type of library and books. (Childrens’ books, for example, get trashed so much faster than the adult titles.)
March 1, 2011 @ 2:06 pm
Makes me wonder what the ratio is in paper books between “books the library bought an new copy of because the old one fell apart” and “books sold cheaply to free up shelf space for other books”… ex-library books aren’t exactly rare in the used book section of amazon, after all, and the local library occasionally has a table at a flea market to get rid of excess.
Maybe HarperCollins included unpopular books that didn’t get checked out often and were removed from the library for that reason, rather than dying the natural death of falling apart, in whatever statistics they cooked up to arrive at 26.
I do think if the limit were 260 rather than 26 checkouts, it would be easier to swallow. Just to pull a number out of thin air.
Jim C. Hines
March 1, 2011 @ 2:59 pm
I don’t know. I’m curious about the methodology they used to come up with that particular number. But at the same time, a lot of people are arguing over the number … which suggests to me that maybe the idea itself isn’t a complete non-starter, but it’s the details that need to be worked out. Kind of like you suggest with 260 vs. 26.
March 1, 2011 @ 3:19 pm
The rental model sounds like a good possibility, although that 26 is a strange number, I agree. I wonder how Netflix keeps licensing viable for streaming digital media?
Another option is to consider an opt-in paid subscription rather than raising taxes. If you think you’re likely to get e-books from the library, you could pay an annual fee and check out downloads for the length of time equivalent to checking out a hardcopy book. If you want to renew the e-book, you can pay an additional dollar per week or some similar nominal fee; if you don’t renew, the viewing license expires.
The advantages: those who are poor and can’t afford an e-Reader don’t pay taxes for a service they’re not using, and the library can check out unlimited copies of a bestseller at the same time. Some of those instances will expire naturally and some will result in additional revenue that the library.
March 1, 2011 @ 4:07 pm
I’m in the camp that the idea of some limit is not unreasonable, since the books don’t wear out they will never need to be replaced. That’s not a huge sales loss in the fiction market, but when it comes to reference materials when they start migrating to e-forms, ouch that could be a big hit.
Personally, I’d like to see a yearly fee equal to the price of the book for the first year. After year 1, the library can choose to purchase another year for 1/2 that price, or let it lapse based on demand. After 4 years, 1/4 of the book price and if they pay for 6 years (total cost 3x cover) its free from then on. It seams reasonable that over 6 years of heavy use (or they wouldn’t renew) you would replace a book 2-3 times. This is simpler to maintain then keeping track of number of rentals.
March 1, 2011 @ 4:25 pm
Addendum to prior thought. In addition to that model, there could also be access to a back e-catalog on a per use basis, so if a patron requested a book not available, the library could obtain it for (lets say) 50 cents for a 2 week rental (it would be up to the library to decide whether or not to charge.
March 1, 2011 @ 7:14 pm
That sounds like a brilliant plan to me! 🙂
March 2, 2011 @ 12:19 am
It’s been ages since I’ve used a library card, but I think the maximum length to check out books was two weeks. Given a book in high demand (one which borrowers will keep until the return deadline, and which will be checked out immediately upon return by the next bloke on the waiting list), and it turns out that book might well be loaned out twenty-six times in one calendar year, give or take a skosh.
This, of course, is purely a coincidence, and no one should infer from the similarity of two numbers that H-C’s revenue model favors a (renewable) annual lease of their product over sale in toto.
– CJ “now, if it was 23 rentals…” H
March 2, 2011 Links and Plugs : Hobbies and Rides
March 2, 2011 @ 6:41 pm
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March 6, 2011 @ 3:19 am
I think the licensing idea makes the most sense – but with the caveat that libraries aren’t limited to a single “copy” of the eBook. Right now, if my library has “rented out” the digital copy of a book, I have to wait in line just as if it’s a paper book. The attempts to shoehorn digital works into analog holes is really annoying – and likely to turn people (further) away from legitimate venues.
This is pure realpolitik here: people choose eBooks from libraries both because they want to get them that way and because they want them now. Stymie that legitimate impulse, and we’re likely to drive ’em to less savory options.
Which actually gave me another idea. One “free” copy, or $0.50 “instant availability”. Or maybe a $5 per month access to the “instant availability” archives…
Point being, there’s more than one way to … [looks nervously at cat behind him]… neuter a dog.
March 6, 2011 @ 3:37 am
Because nobody mentioned it yet:
How A HarperCollins library book looks after 26 checkouts