Discriminating Against Libraries, 26 eBook Circs at a Time

Preface: If you haven’t heard about Harper Collins’ new policy on library eBook checkout, please read these two articles from Librarian by Day and Library Journal for more information. I don’t want to repost what’s already been covered better elsewhere. Also #hcod is the hashtag on Twitter for this situation.

The situation is simply this:

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.

Librarians, readers, and authors alike are up in arms over this ludicrous policy. What about small public libraries? Do readers understand what this means? What alternatives are out there? And what has Harper Collins said about its relationship to libraries? This post will address these questions.

Small Public Library Impact

Something I’ve not seen mentioned much in the discussion going on in the library community and in the author and reading communities, has been what about small public libraries? (Update: Kate Sheehan has a very eloquent post describing the impact of this decision on small public libraries and consortia). Their budgets can vary from $10,000 (or less) to under $200,000. ALA has a document with some statistics. It’s from 2002 — if anyone knows of a more up-to-date document, please let me know! They cannot afford eBooks. They have to choose between which best seller author to buy this time and who to skip on until the next book comes out. They don’t have the ability to buy multiple formats of the same title, let along MULTIPLE COPIES!!!

I see library eContent consortia being attacked by the new policy. You know what? Almost 80% of the public libraries in the United States serve populations under 25,000, with budgets of under 200,000. I could list all the statistics out here that are linked above, but the simple point is, small public libraries will NEVER be able to afford the high costs involved with eBooks and content purchasing WITHOUT consortia. If Harper Collins and other publishers raise the bar even higher and raise the costs of purchasing eContent and restrict what consortia do, you’ll lose a great majority of this 80% group of public libraries.

A digital divide between libraries. Between their patrons. The haves and have nots. 20% of the public libraries (if they can afford it) having eBooks and 80% not having access. One might call this discrimination.

Readers Get How Crazy This Policy Is!
I want to share a conversation that I’ve had on Facebook with at least one reader and librarian, as well as comments on Twitter by readers and authors. I think they better exhibit the impact and ludicrous nature of Harper Collins change in policy and also the greater implications if this policy does in fact remain as is. (Scott is also a librarian)
Reader: I’ve been curious. How much does it cost the library system to buy ebooks?
Scott Freeman: It depends on a lot of factors including the publisher, age of the book, etc. I would say a new release typically runs us between 20-30 bucks. We can get a mass market paperback in the 5-10 range. Our issue right now is that Harper Collins …announced today that they would only sell us the books through our vendor for a total of 26 checkouts per book. That means after 26 times we have to buy another copy of the ebook. HarperCollins sucks.
Me: Also, Reader, the bigger issue for libraries isn’t just the Harper Collins problem. Not all books are available as ebooks and not all publishers let libraries lend their ebooks at all.
Scott Freeman: Right, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan are the remaining 2 of the big 6 that have yet to embrace libraries. Although I could see them signing up quickly if the Harper model was to take hold.
Me: But we don’t want that to happen. If libraries, authors, and readers put pressure on the publishers to stop this draconian policy, instead of just accepting it, and come up with a working model that could result in more potential revenue for the publishers, we might come out with a better ebook model. It’s anecdotal still (but would love to see a research study done on this), but I believe many people borrow new books/new authors from libraries as trial, and then buy it and additional copies if they like it. The more you read and are exposed to new authors, the more you buy (if you can afford it), And that’s the other important element of librarians and book/ebook lending: many people just can’t afford to buy books on their own, so they borrow from the library, but someday they might be able to build their own collection, if they become more financially stable. In between, where else can they maintain their reading habits at little to no cost? Only at the library.
Scott Freeman: Well said.
Reader: Wow, thank you Scott and Heather. I don’t understand the Harper Collins model. They don’t limit the amount of check outs for a hard copy so why should they limit the amount for ebooks? An ebook should cost them less to produce. And with the sale of ebooks on the rise there should be a greater profit margin without them having to charge libraries more. It just seems like a way to nickel and dime libraries.
Scott Freeman: This is a pure money-grab fueled by outright greed. If we let them get away with it then the other publishers will follow suit. And more struggling libraries will suffer under the weight of trying to meet the needs of their patrons and make ends meet at the same time.

The reader got it how ludicrous this policy is. Harper Collins, why didn’t you in the first place?

Alternatives to Harper Collins and Current Library eBook Models

What about alternatives to Harper Collins and other current eBook models? I’ve not seen many mentioned, except for this one, that actually is a fantastic middle of the road solution, and might just promote more sales for the publishers in the end. Check out @wizzyrea‘s idea, “Content Middlemen, We Need Your Help!” Harper Collins and other publishers what do you think about this idea?

Also, what about the environmental cost of recycling the books at the end of their lives? You don’t have to do that with eBooks at all. “The Death of Books (It’s Not What You Think)” addresses this very question. Why are eBooks so high anyway, both in consumer stores (Nook & Kindle) and from library vendors? Does it really cost that much to produce bits and bytes that never have to be printed when the material is finalized, never shipped, never stored (except costs associated with file storage and access), and never recycled.

Harper Collins on Libraries

Over at Harper Collins website, I discovered this statement:

Citizens will be reminded that libraries and bookstores are vital gathering places where they can come together to talk and learn about things that really matter. In nearly every instance, the local library system has been the driving force behind the community-wide reading program. While each community has put its own spin on their book event, there are some standard steps that each one has taken to establish and launch their program.

And on this page libraries are mentioned over and over again. Harper Collins clearly see public libraries as a value asset when it benefits them. They’ve used libraries and supported our services when its benefited them. In light of this how can they in good conscious take this stance on library material?

So Harper Collins, you support communities and their libraries housing your materials through your own website’s statements. Yet, you have proposed this draconian policy that benefits no one but you. All I can say is this image comes to mind, captioned oh-so-appropriately by a Facebook friend. And this threat from a hardcore reader. Read through the #hcod stream to find other similar statements from readers. I’m seeing statements about boycotting and stopping reading a book published by Harper Collins.


Reading promotes more reading, which promotes more demand for books. Right? You’d think so! But if you restrict the ability of institutions to purchase materials in any form, institutions aren’t going to buy books and readers aren’t going to access them. Period. The entry level to do so is too high.

  • Have to track circs.
  • Have to track when to pull the record out of the catalog.
  • Have to track who purchases new copies again when the circs run out.
  • Have to predict demand over an unknown timeframe (did you know that you can set the Overdrive checkout period to 7 days, 14 days or 21 days or even return the book early? The 26 checkout period could be gone through in 26 days, 6 months, 1 year or 1.5 years. How many library books wear out in that time of usage).
  • Who’s going to be able to do this?

Librarians, don’t let Harper Collins and the other publishers get away with this policy — we’ve been asking for a change and a seat the table in the eReader discussion; this is a door to get to the table finally. Do not let up the pressure on them. Let your patrons know to contact Harper Collins. Readers and Authors, let Harper Collins know at library.ebook@harpercollins.com your outrage at this change of policy.

4 thoughts on “Discriminating Against Libraries, 26 eBook Circs at a Time”

  1. I find it interesting that the HarperCollins website does not have *any* way to send electronic communications to the publisher. No email addresses shown anywhere, no electronic forms to fill out, nada.

    I think this might just show their commitment to the “electronic age” — denial that it exists at all.

  2. We’ve got the wrong focus here. Libraries are interested in the greater good. The publisher is interested in profits. We need to find data that shows that free content drives sales of paid content. Unfortunately I think that’s a mixed bag right now; yes for film, mixed – mostly no – for music.

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