Monday, March 7, 2011

Panic! at the Library

As part of my ongoing coverage of the astounding (and often strange) turns the publishing industry is taking as it shifts from paper-based to electronic media, I bring you this, mes auteurs: The Consumerist's report that HarperCollins is capping e-book loans at 26 check-outs. If a library purchases a HarperCollins e-book, they can only lend it 26 times before it "expires" and the library must purchase a new license from the publisher.

This is, à mon avis, completely nuts for several reasons.

First, the idea of forced obsolescence is probably so repugnant to most librarians that, rather than buy and re-buy the same e-book over and over, they're probably just not going to purchase HarperCollins e-books.

The publisher seems to be betting on librarians' collective fear that if they don't stock their e-books, patrons will simply buy e-books on-line and the libraries won't be able to justify their continued existence. If there's a way to breed ill will among your customers (that is, the librarians actually purchasing books for their libraries), this is it.

Second, the number 26 seems completely arbitrary to me. I'm not privy to any of the logistical tinkering or number-crunching the folks at HarperCollins did in order to arrive at this figure, but it seems to me (and you can see from the video in the article) that physical books last much longer than 26 check-outs (and I can tell you from experience that they consistently survive many more).

It's possible that this is an average number that takes into account all the books that go on shelves and are never or rarely checked out, left to rot over a fifty-year period with only a couple of loans. If that's the case, though, libraries would chuck the book when it became unusable and would probably not buy a new one, since no one wanted the original to begin with.

If a publisher is going to enforce a loan cap, I think it 1.) needs to be much higher than 26 (based entirely on my uninformed opinion), and 2.) should vary depending on the work in question. Harry Potter and the Seven Figure Advance is going to be borrowed a lot more often than Actuarial Mathematics for Dummies, and the loan cap should reflect this.

Finally, the whole reason the loan cap exists is as an analogue to the wear and tear suffered by physical books that eventually need replacing. I think one of the most destructive tendencies inherent to the publishing industry is not its resistance to electronic media, but its slavish insistence on making them exactly like physical media.

Instead of panicking over a perceived loss in revenues caused by books that no longer need to be replaced, publishers should be touting the non-physical nature of e-books as a tremendous boon: "You'll never need to replace this e-book! That means that rather than buy a new copy of the same book, you can spend the money you'll save on more of our e-books."

E-books don't take up physical shelf space, so the limiting factor that once forced a librarian to choose between replacing a popular title that's worn out and purchasing a different title—that is, space—no longer exists. More titles sold is good for everyone.

My rant is over for today, meine Autoren, but what do you think? Should publishers be able to cap library loans, and if so, is 26 a reasonable number?


  1. A lot of people have been ranting about this, I'd like to know what HC is saying in response.

  2. In a generous mood, I might say publishers might charge libraries a reasonable surcharge for unlimited usage. But, given funding and budget constraints, it might created "the straw that broke the camel's back" situation.

  3. I agree with your points. This makes little sense to me!

  4. This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I go to the library because I can't buy all the books I want. I don't have an e-reader so renting one from the library is not of consequence, however if I did have one, I would just by the book for myself. Why should I rent one?

    And if the library had the same book in its stacks as well as on e-reader, I would take the physical copy out.

    This is just another way for the Big pubs to regroup some of their losses since the crash. Every body has to make money one way or another.

  5. Nicely said, Eric, thank you. Tweeting a link to this...

  6. I'm glad you've written about this - I wasn't sure what to think. What about charging more for a library to buy an e-book since they will be getting more value out of it? Is that out of the question?

  7. I raise my cup of tea to you, Eric. Every time someone says the publishers aren't running scared, they do something like this that makes me think otherwise. I know I borrowed that same Nancy Drew books for roughly ten years at my local library, so no, HC's stance doesn't make sense.

  8. "I think one of the most destructive tendencies inherent to the publishing industry is not its resistance to electronic media, but its slavish insistence on making them exactly like physical media."


  9. I just blogged about this this morning! It's really been making me think all week since I'm both an aspiring writer and a library worker. I believe the 26 circs number is based on an average loan period of two weeks, which would mean a year of use for the e-book before it expires. However, you are right; most books last longer than 26 uses. Furthermore, most books only stay on the shelf for a few years and then are weeded out, especially for fiction. Only books with continued demand might be repurchased if they get worn out. Most library books don't reach this point.

    @Anne: Perhaps you'd borrow an e-book from a library because you wanted to give a new author a try before committing to purchasing any of his/her books. That is, you'd probably borrow an e-book for any of the same reasons you'd borrow a print one, especially since you state you can't buy all the books you want. Having an e-reader wouldn't necessarily change that. Yes, big publishers have lost a lot of money, but they're not going to be able to recuperate it all from libraries, who have all had MAJOR budget cuts over the last few years. If libraries have to pay to repurchase e-books in great number, they'll buy fewer titles all around (in ALL formats), which doesn't help anybody.

    @Katie: I work in an academic library, so we don't deal too much with HarperCollins, but we often do pay more for e-books (and print books too). For our platform-based e-books, we usually pay a higher base price and then a licensing fee for subsequent years that allows us continued access. Some vendors also allow a multiple-price system, with the highest price ensuring perpetual access. (This is more common to journals, though.)

  10. Considering that my local library has had a major cut in funding for purchasing new books, this seems like a really dumb move for a publisher to make. What library with a reduced budget is going to purchase an ebook with a cap on it?

  11. I agree with the above poster that maybe it would make more sense (as a compromise) for a library's copy to cost more, like a "lender's license" or whatnot. This 26 times and then expiration seems STUPID to me. Good post.

  12. I'm from Canada, and my understanding is that our local library purchases e-book licenses at a much higher price than a print book, but:
    -there is only one consumer who can check it out at a time
    -there are a finite number of loans on the book allowed (I don't know the number)
    -our federal government allows some compensation to an author based on the number of their books within the library for circulation
    -borrowers MUST live within a certain geographic location.

    I feel strongly about the need for a vibrant public library system, but this is my question to the people who want unlimited lending options: Why would a consumer ever wish to buy an e-book if they can rent one 24/7 from a library without leaving their home? Particularly fiction, where the desire to make notes or highlight pages would be lower than with non-fiction?

    Please note I am not trying to be snarky. I am after understanding. There must be a critical point I don't understand in the debate because while I might not agree with the *details* of HC's decision, I understand their rationale.

  13. "I think one of the most destructive tendencies inherent to the publishing industry is not its resistance to electronic media, but its slavish insistence on making them exactly like physical media."

    I don't think this is inherent to just the publishing industry--just look at Geocities when it debuted a decade ago--but this is my fear too. Kindle's book loaning policy for example mimics the physical experience (i.e. I loan the book, I don't have access to the book).

  14. Jan: Even loaned eBooks have limits (i.e. they expire after a certain period). As for incentive to actually buy eBooks (as opposed to loaning them), it comes down to a sense of ownership (or convenience, depending on your perspective). Borrowing a book still takes a few steps. Browsing a book you own is significantly easier.

    There's also the sense of owning the book. Some people might feel this is impractical but hey, I have a huge library of print books and it's not like I reread them. (Same goes for a lot of hobbies, such as stamp collecting, coin collecting, etc.)

  15. I live some distance from the nearest library. E-lending would be great, if only my library offered that service. But putting a 26 checkout limit? How many times can a print book be checked out before it has to be replaced. This is totally crazy.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  16. When I was in re-hab many years ago, my stay was limited by the insurance company to 28 days, the standard at the time. This number was based on the fact that when Hazelden first opened its doors, they had 28 movies they could show their patients, which they doled out one day at a time. It had nothing to do with what worked, just what was in the film library.

    I fear Harper Collins may be employing a similar type of thinking.

  17. I too am guessing that the 26 loans is to make it a one-year lease, though longer if the book isn't popular.

    This is incredibly lame.

    I realize the industry is trying to figure out ebooks and experiments and missteps will be common. However, common sense and basic customer service concerns should have nipped this one in the bud.

    This sort of behavior is what encourages piracy. When media corporations seem evil and arbitrary, some people simply don't mind cheating them. Of course, that ends up being disastrous for the artists, and I think people are waking up to that, but still...

    This sort of behavior, of treating customers like crap, needs to end.

  18. Honestly, my library wouldn't replace it. On average we replace books after after 20-30 checkouts total (for ware and tear) but unless it's a mega hit (think Twilight, the Hunger Games) we often just retire it from our collection. If a book has been checked out 20 times total but only twice in the past year - it goes bye-bye. I suspect a lot of libraries just won't re-buy the ebook. I'm not a favor of this cap, but I think it's ultimately hurting them because most libraries will just let their copy cap out.