Well done, HarperCollins: Librarians must change old thinking

HarperCollins’ US unit has just changed its long-standing ebook policy for library sales. Instead of selling ebooks for a one-time cost and allowing libraries to lend these ebooks in perpetuity, HarperCollins amended its terms to limit a purchase to 26 loans. For an average 2-week lending term, libraries would get a full year of lending for about US$10-20, based on typical ebook prices—that’s about 40-80 cents a loan.

This seems a very modest sum to me but it has got librarians outraged and it has started a library boycott of HarperCollins.  The response within the library world to this issue has been almost universally hostile. Here’s HarperCollins’ response to this furore.

Our prior e-book policy for libraries dates back almost 10 years to a time when the number of e-readers was too small to measure. It is projected that the installed base of e-reading devices domestically will reach nearly 40 million this year. We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors. We are looking to balance the mission and needs of libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers, so that the library channel can thrive alongside the growing e-book retail channel.

In spite of the heat HarperCollins can expect to receive from its library customers, I hope they stand their ground. Librarians need to shift their thinking as digitisation transforms the reading landscape. They are doing authors, publishers and ultimately themselves and their patrons no favours by this stance.

The fact is that rightsholders do have serious concerns and librarians have not managed to address them. They won’t do it with anger, or with soothing but unfounded assurances that ebooks will be no different from print in their economic impact.

In the face of rightsholders’ concerns, librarians must listen not bully, and they should be willing to experiment with new models that will ensure libraries and other channels can co-exist in the emerging, all-pervasive digital world. No-one has all the answers yet but we won’t solve this issue by denying the existence of the problem and closing off avenues for fresh thinking.

Librarians (and patrons) often make it difficult to work through issues associated with ebooks by doggedly assuming that ebooks will work the same way as printed books in terms of their economic impact, and by insisting therefore that the things they’ve done with print should carry over largely unchanged to ebooks.

But there are very important differences. Ebooks don’t wear out, they’re easy to find and hard to lose, so chances are libraries will need fewer to service the same level of borrowing. And new technology is making the effort required to borrow minimal. These facts underpin concerns about how the paid ebook market will be affected if borrowing (especially from public libraries which are open to anyone) offers few disadvantages over purchase. Borrowing ebooks can be made as easy and accessible—24/7 from anywhere—as buying them. When you combine this with the fact that “owning” a “new” file has less value for most people than owning a new physical book, you can see the potential for more, perhaps many more, people to shift from buying to borrowing especially if borrowing is free.

Librarians’ response to these concerns is typically a claim that they’ve been lending books for years and it’s probably helped rather than hurt sales. Probably true, but the potential ease with which borrowers can get a free ebook is a quantum shift, not merely an incremental change.

A recent attempt to tackle this concern was some research by library ebook supplier Overdrive. It indicated ebook lending had a positive impact on book sales. But it was printed book sales that the survey found benefited. This somewhat misses the point. It’s universally acknowledged that print will be a less  important source of income and many books will be digital-only. Publishers and authors are right to be concerned about the impact of lending on ebook sales. In addition, the past history of library ebook lending is largely irrelevant, given that it was mostly PDF files on clunky PCs—nothing like the experience of reading on a Kindle or iPad. And glib assurances that it will all be fine won’t cut it here when so much is at stake.

Librarians must open their minds to these new realities impacting the creators and important downstream services.

As well as the economic impact on the book market, the second thing to consider is the impact on libraries themselves if they saw a big increase in ebook lending. When authors and publishers look at the severe budget cuts that libraries battle with, and the limited funds they have to buy books, they rightly ask where the money will come from and what might happen as these library loans take an ever larger share of the market.

The issue that prompted this debate and boycott is a perfect example. I would have thought that 40-80 cents to give someone a $10 or $20 book was not excessive. If the book were borrowed 1000 times at the proposed “excessive” rate, it would earn its author and publisher (combined) only about $200-400, after distributor discounts (probably $50-100 for the author). If it were a popular title borrowed 100,000 times, they’d earn $20,000-40,000 between them from libraries with perhaps $5000-10,000 of that going to the author. This is not greed. In fact, I wonder how many people would see this as an acceptable return for the years of collective work that go into writing, producing and selling a book.

So why do librarians think these are excessive returns and how much would they be willing to pay if their ebook lending took a much greater share of the market? While libraries do a public good by expanding readership of an author’s work, let’s not overstate their success turning readership into income for authors and publishers. The fact is that the author could lose the amount of this library income from just 4% of patrons choosing to borrow instead of buying.

So where will the money come from to pay for libraries’ increased market share, some at the expense of paid retail sales? Here are some possibilities, none of them easy.

  1. From the rightsholders—publishers and authors—who would forfeit higher value retail sales for low value library sales. This seems to be the route libraries are taking but it’s unreasonable and ultimately damaging to everyone. It seems to be based on a convenient, but false notion, that authors and publishers make excessive profits. There are rich authors and publishers, but very few. The vast majority already accept low returns.
  2. A quantum leap in funding from local and national taxes. Most people would see this as unlikely.
  3. A big reduction in buildings and staff. This is much more likely, given that politicians are already closing libraries in many parts of the world to control costs. A handful of digital libraries could service a whole country so this could be achievable without reducing access to library books. In New Zealand where I’m based, it costs about $2.50 to make each loan of a printed book, mostly due to staff and facilities costs. That’s about five times the amount that goes to buy the book so it’s certainly a fertile place to find the money. But would it be desirable? Perhaps, but we need to have this conversation.

If we want to have ebook lending while avoiding big cuts to existing library staff, services or facilities, libraries may need to consider other options, all of them with some difficult trade-offs attached.

  1. Limit patron demand. Examples would be requiring patrons to come into a physical library to borrow an ebook, such as UK publishers recently proposed to a similarly hostile reaction; having only a small number of ebooks available, or delaying library release dates to maximise paid sales.
  2. Secure a quantum leap in funding from local and/or central government. As noted above, this is unlikely given libraries’ already tight budgets.
  3. Charge a loan fee for some patron groups and/or ebook types to make the service cost-neutral. This could also bring in extra income to pay fair prices for ebooks, and reduce the impact on paid retail sales by closing the cost gap between borrowing and buying (in my opinion, the best of the available options).

However we address this, let’s start with an acknowledgement that publishers and authors (and indeed booksellers) have a genuinely-held concern and that the consequences of getting it wrong are enormous. So until, or unless they are proved wrong with hard facts, we need open-minded discussion and a willingness to try different models if we’re going to deliver the positive things that ebooks can bring.

All of the options above are uncomfortable to some degree. But this is a time when everyone needs to step outside their comfort zones if we’re not to squander the tremendous opportunity that ebooks present.

Comments (25)

  1. ShellBell

    26 loans is a ridiculously small number. With the limited budget that most libraries have these days I can understand why Harper Collins eBooks will either not be purchased to begin with or will not be renewed once the 26 loan limit has been reached.

    One US library’s response to the situation. http://tiny.cc/eysv9

    I for one will not bother with eBooks if publishers attempt to impose that type of restriction beyond library eBooks.

  2. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi @ShellBell. Thanks for the video link. I think the issue of whether libraries *could* lend a single book 200 times without further payment is separate from whether they *should* and needs to be debated. I personally think the balance is wrong in this instance, especially given the greater chance of economic loss to rightsholders from increased library lending. Should it be 10 times? 26 times? 260 times? More? Now is the time to have this discussion

    I think that too many librarians (such as those in this video clip) assume that just because things worked a certain way with printed books, they must continue to work that way with ebooks.

    Ebooks offer many new benefits to both libraries and their patrons and it’s reasonable to look at what value the new things bring, such as instant access from home, and how that should be shared. Another benefit is a potentially huge saving in the cost of actually making a loan (in New Zealand, it costs about $2.50 to lend a printed book, or *five times* what’s spent on the book itself). If it costs much less to make an ebook loan, perhaps libraries can afford to — and should — pay more to authors and publishers.

    Again, I think the issues need to be clearly laid out so we can discuss how things should work in the radically new environment.

  3. Ben Trafford

    Martin, while I agree that new models may need to be embraced by all parties, Harper-Collins has made an utter mess of this.

    They claim to have consulted libraries before instituting this ludicrous policy — and yet we’ve heard nothing from these supposed libraries.

    If a business methodology that has stood the test of time is to be changed, it shouldn’t be abruptly and by the party who stands the most to profit from it.

    I’m reasonably certain libraries wouldn’t have had nearly as visceral reaction if they’d been approached to adopt a new model. In my experience with epublishing, librarians usually stand at the forefront of technology and technological changes, not in the rear…like, say, most publishers.

    Your solutions are mostly interesting, though I recoil at the suggestion of closing libraries. Libraries are more than just places to get books — they are centers of community, and should remain so, regardless of the change in book borrowing paradigms.

    I think people would be much more inclined to hear what you’re saying if you’d titled this piece something like, “Ebooks Demand A New Kind of Library,” rather than congratulating Harper-Collins for being stupidly heavy-handed and frankly obtuse.

  4. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Ben, I think you’re probably right in one respect. It’s likely there was less direct consultation between the publisher and libraries than there should have been. In my experience, librarians talk to each other and to aggegators such as OverDrive, and publishers (and to a much lesser extent authors) do the same. The aggregators have a vested interest in not raising vexing issues. So, after all these years, there has been little proper dialogue on these complex and fundamental issues.

    I’m not convinced that the library sector is much more advanced than publishers in their thinking about the issues posed by the new eReading environment, as opposed to the “old” PC-based era. Both sides are confronting a very different reality than they’d seen in even the recent past.

    I wholeheartedly support a call for librarians, publishers and authors to talk directly, with an open mind so that each side properly understands the issues faced by the others.

    I also agree that closing libraries is not what we should be doing but with public money tight, let’s ensure that the addition of digital lending is not paid for disproportionately by authors and publishers. There are ways to retain these essential community spaces and to improve access to books/ebooks but creative solutions are needed.

  5. Ben Trafford


    I agree with most of what you’re saying, except for one point:

    Publishers, as they exist today, are ridiculously cumbersome dinosaurs. I’d be happy to see this inequity paid for by publishers, whose role is becoming increasingly less useful and more of a hindrance.

  6. gous

    The library is a sacred cow to many readers, just witness the outraged responses at Teleread to your article.

    Have you read the various articles by Eric Hellman and Tim Spalding on the future of libraries? They make sober reading, especially Spalding whose arguments that ebooks are a great danger to libraries appears on the ball to me.

  7. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    @gous. Thanks for the tip. I’ve been following Hellman but not Spalding. Just checked out some of his perceptive writings. http://www.librarything.com/blogs/thingology/category/ebooks/

  8. David Bott

    “For an average 2-week lending term, libraries would get a full year of lending for about US$10-20, based on typical ebook prices—that’s about 40-80 cents a loan.”

    Libraries in Canada don’t get a deal anywhere near this. We pay *more* for an e-book than for the same print book. According to this NYT study, publishers are making 4x the profit on an ebook sold at the same price as print:


    Sorry, we are being gouged. Perhaps if publishers actually sold ebooks at one-half to one-third the price of print, I might be sympathetic to their plight, but right now it’s pure greed.

    We also don’t even own the ebook — we license it. What is that?!? Gimme a break.

    Steve Jobs figured it out. Apple passed10 billion downloads a year ago: http://gigaom.com/apple/10-billion-itunes-song-downloads-could-equal-10k-for-one-lucky-customer/

    They also dumped DRM in 2009: http://www.brighthand.com/default.asp?newsID=14773

    So did Sony. They partnered with Freegal to offer libraries DRM-free downloads of the entire Sony Music catalog: http://www.freegalmusic.com/users/sndlogin

    How about this as a radical idea:

    Remove the DRM, lower the price and place a few links at the front & back of the ebook to allow patrons to purchase items from the publisher. Publishers will get more sales, more authors will make money and libraries will be able to expand their collections to serve our communities.

    There is absolutely no reason to ever artificially limit an ebook. As it stands, HC’s draconian digital book-burning policies will force libraries to make a choice: buy the same titles over and over and over every few years and forego purchasing new titles or only buy new titles.

    Frankly, I don’t like either of those options. Our library has already made a decision — we’re not spending one cent of our million dollar book budget with HC.

  9. Deb C

    Boo, Hiss. This post shows no understanding of the mission of libraries to provide equal access to material for the masses.

    If other publishers take on the Harper Collins model, libraries will not be able to participate in the ebook ecosystem, and libraries WILL be endangered.

    With no libraries, the luxury of reading and intellectual exploration will eventually revert back to the elite who can afford ebooks, as print publishing declines.

  10. Eric Hellman

    Martin, I’m glad to hear you’ve been following!

    One sentence of yours that is sure to enrage libraries and harm publisher-librarian dialogue is this: “librarians must listen not bully, and they should be willing to experiment with new models that will ensure libraries and other channels can co-exist in the emerging, all-pervasive digital world.” Think of the famous scene in Dirty Harry. Libraries see HarperCollins has having a 44 pointed at their heads, and you’re telling them they should feel lucky, stop their “bullying” and start negotiating for their survival.

    My view is that if HC is primarily looking out for their revenue, they are being breathtakingly inept. They are assuming that expense is the only thing that matters to libraries, and have omitted to see that libraries view the new deal as a vastly inferior product.

  11. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi Eric, thanks for your note (and your blog). On your first
    point, re: my poor phrasing, you’re absolutely right. I
    shouldn’t have written in this tenor and it’s probably
    contributed to the same heated atmosphere that I’ve suggested
    we need to restrain. I’ll have to eat humble pie over that

    Your survey has some interesting data. This was
    particularly interesting:

    Significantly, 37% (±5%) of librarians indicated
    they would not purchase limited-check-out ebooks at any
    price. … A similar percentage of publishers, 28% (±12%)
    indicated that no amount of money would convince them to
    offer an unlimited-check-out ebook (which is the most common
    type today). So it seems that publishers also have
    considerations that transcend math, which I find a bit

    The publisher response wasn’t surprising because, while
    librarians often focus on publishers getting
    the highest possible price for their ebooks, publishers
    actually have a second goal which for many is even more
    important: How do we restrain ebook lending growth so that it
    doesn’t undermine other channels. This is an area where ebooks’
    potential is very different from print. Unfortunately, it’s
    hard for publishers to raise the pricing issue and it seems to be
    almost impossible for them to speak openly about what sorts
    of (often artificial) constraints could
    limit ebook lending to reasonable levels especially when many people would
    think, ‘the more the better’. The extreme case is that no
    limits are placed and it’s made as easy and cheap as
    possible: an ebook can be bought cheaply and loaned out free
    as often (concurrently) as librarians can find patrons who
    want it, no queuing required. This, of course, is
    unrealistic. It would decimate the ebook market because few
    rational consumers would choose to buy an ebook when, for no
    more effort, they can read it free.

    But it begs the question: how much should ebook lending be
    constrained (if at all), and how would you do it? Librarians
    need to be part of that tough conversation and it needs to be
    a proper conversation so each party understands the other.
    Your example from Andy Woodworth highlights the hazards of
    finding solutions in isolation. He suggests as win/win that a library
    should be able to buy a large number of check-outs and use
    them all in the month of a book’s release instead of
    spreading them out over year or more, like the print book
    model. Great for the library but for a publisher, that’s the
    worst possible scenario unless, of course, they charge a
    huge price to the library to limit demand. The publishers’
    highest value customers buy early (hence hardbacks first) so
    this would undermine a big part of their revenue. Later is
    better for the publisher. This is no different from movies.
    You wouldn’t expect a film to run on free-to-air TV for the
    first month of its release, in spite of the extra publicity.
    It goes to cinema, then DVD, then pay TV, then free TV. For
    that matter, fashion items, all sorts of things get a big
    part of their profits from those early full price sales.

    So how do we maximise ebook access across all groups and
    price points so that no-one misses out, including our authors
    and publishers. Libraries can, and should be a very important
    part of figuring this out. Of course, some things are always going to be
    sources of friction, no matter how much and how niclely we
    talk. But right now I’m concerned we’re not talking these
    things through openly enough and respectfully enough (and, as
    you pointed out up front, I’m guilty as charged on the latter).

  12. Eric Hellman

    Again, the language!

    If the goal of publishers is to “restrain the growth of lending”, then there’s not a conversation they can have with libraries, because to them, that’s the same thing as “make sure that libraries fail in their core mission”.

    On the other hand, if the goal of publishers is to “protect and support sales channels”, that’s a conversation that most librarians are very willing to have.

    And thanks for letting me bully you a bit!

  13. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    I think we’re talking about the same goal, Eric, but your phrasing, thankfully, is better:-)

  14. Sarah Houghton-Jan

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us on this issue. You raise a lot of important points and provide some counter-arguments to points that I and other librarians have made. I thank you for that.

    I do have to raise a moderate objection and a big one.

    The moderate objection: The effort to borrow a library eBook is -not- minimal, as you say it is. The difficulty in figuring out which books will work on your hardware and software is step 1. Then you progress into the eBook platform software and plug-in downloads and upgrades, registration, and then the check-out and downloading process for the eBook itself. As a librarian who helps people through this difficult process, I must ask that it not be trivialized. It’s a horrible experience and many people turn away from using library eBooks at all because of it.

    The big objection: HarperCollins has taken the exact wrong approach. They are killing the benefits of digital content and at the same time imposing the severe negatives of print content on that same digital content. You can’t have it both ways. Libraries raise exposure for authors and raise your sales. We absolutely do not damage authors’ bottom lines. The data does not support that premise. For a good list of why authors should support what librarians are asking for re: digital content, see Andy Woodworth’s post from today: http://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/why-the-ebook-readers-bill-of-rights-benefits-authors/

  15. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    @Sarah, thanks for raising these points. I’d make the following comments on your two points.

    1. The ebook borrowing experience. As you rightly point out, the difficulty of borrowing ebooks from libraries is not trivial and right now it prevents any big move to ebook borrowing. Until borrowing an ebook from a library is as easy as buying it from Amazon, we’re not going to see anything like mass adoption so my concern is more future-looking.

    My Amazon analogy points to where most of the problem resides and it’s not with the publishers who just supply their (open format) ebook files. It’s up to the retailer or library to deal with the user experience. Anyone who has lived in the Amazon ebook ecosystem will know how easy it is and how well everything works. Libraries have been badly let down by their suppliers such as OverDrive and NetLibrary/Ebsco, who have lagged behind in their development compared to the retail sector. I think, for instance, it’s inexcusable that OverDrive should have only recently issued an iPhone app for their library ebooks and NetLibrary/Ebsco don’t yet have one of their own (they recommend some third party apps).

    But libraries will expect, and eventually get from their suppliers, a better experience for their patrons. It’s unlikely to solve every problem because consumers want choice and device makers often make small but annoying variations (as browser makers still do for websites almost 20 years after the first web browser appeared). But we both agree, I think, that patrons should get a much better experience.

    2. That HC is killing the benefits of ebooks. I don’t think HC’s approach kills the benefits of ebooks at all from a patron’s point of view. Assuming the eventual improvement in user experience, patrons should enjoy the same good acquire/read experience that buyers of ebooks get – and in many ways a better experience than they have from borrowing printed books. They’d have to accept DRM of some sort since it’s DRM that expires the loan.

    So the impact would be mostly “behind the scenes”, affecting librarian/institutional functions and finances. From what I’ve seen, the primary concerns revolve around (1) cost, both the absolute cost and various usage terms which affect cost, and (2) a group of concerns that I’ll call “ownership rights”, eg First Sale Doctrine, DRM, preservation, resale.

    The HC move goes to the heart of both concerns. eg By charging again after 26 loans, it’s more like a rental than a purchase (so less like a book). Another example: by preventing concurrent lending, any library wanting to satisfy high demand at the start of a book’s life will have to buy more copies rather than use all of its 26 loan “slots” efficiently when they are most needed (so more like a book).

    So it’s not all backward-looking, nor is it removing all – or even most – of the benefits of digital. But it is stopping many ways in which digital would replicate print, especially those that would flow from outright ownership by libaries. In some ways, the current model is anomalous in letting librarians buy a book at normal terms and lend it as many times as they please. DVDs, CDs, software, etc are often restricted (like ebooks) to personal use and require special versions for lending, rental, etc.

    My hunch is that the the license (and/or service model) rather than outright ownership model will prevail but that’s part of what’s up for debate. It will do so because it will increasingly resemble other digital goods (music, movies, games, software), and from a practical point of view it will work best in fairly managing the various rights of the different parties. But a lot of work has to go into working out the balance of rights.

    Another “rent vs buy” concern is preservation. Many preservation issues can be dealt with at a national level (eg national library legal deposit schemes with suitable access rights) so there’s no need to make that the responsibility of every local or institutional library. And anyway, most libraries at the moment don’t actually own the files they think they own. Often, they’ll buy an ebook “outright” from the publisher but will lose access to it if they stop paying their library IT supplier’s monthly access fees. This means the more you’ve invested in your collection, the less choice you have to move your IT elsewhere. I’m not sure that this constitutes a sound long term preservation strategy and in many ways a recurring licence to the publisher instead of service fees to a proprietary technology provider might give libraries a better long term deal.

    Finally, the benefits of word of mouth and sharing are significant and libraries are a big contributor. We can agree on that. I just want to know that it translates into a fair economic return for the rightsholders – more sales or, at least, not too many lost sales. More discussion and research are needed on that one.

  16. Kathryn Carmody

    Hi Martin,
    Are you able to shed some light on how HarperCollins came to the number 26?

  17. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi Kathryn, actually, no, I don’t know how HC arrived at the 26 loans limit but it’s an excellent question. I guess the mathematics is neat, 26 issues covers 52 weeks of two-week loans, etc. But why it was 26 and not 12 or 52 or whatever, I don’t know. It’s possible HC has some data on library lending which might relate 26x to an average number of issues. I’ve tried to work this metric out myself from publicly-available data but I haven’t managed to nail it because the data I have mixes books with other materials and misses some key data.

    Here are a few stats (from NZ public libraries, approx figures from 2008/9 year) to give some rough perspective:

    – Total NZ population: 4.3M
    – Total public library membership: 2M
    – Total issues (year): 53M
    – Total holdings: 12.2M (note this is not just books, but is mostly books)
    – New items added: 1.3M (441K new titles)
    – Stock turn (ie average issues per item per year): 4.36
    – Issues per registered member (year): 25

    I suppose one metric above, the 4.36 stock turn, points to 26X representing about 5-6 years of average usage (noting, as above, that these stats are for total materials, not just books. My understanding is that 80+% is books). But most of the usage will occur when the items are new so a high proportion of those 53M annual issues would be applied to the 1.3M new items added.

    If anyone has other data, interpretations of the data, or ideas on how the 26x relates to current practice, it would be interesting to hear. Of course, it’s not necessary that the digital system needs to replicate current practice but it would be useful to use this as a point of reference for discussion.

  18. pwsatkinson

    I’m late to this discussion but I feel very strongly that we’re making the wrong arguments and definitely a boycott is exactly the wrong approach to take.

    Though the argument about protecting the publishing infrastructure has some truth to it, it’s mostly a red herring. We as librarians need to accept that morality is not what drives corporations. They are mandated *by law* to maximise returns for shareholders which is generally measured in terms of profit.

    Unlike other boycotted items like oil or food, there is no alternate source for a favourite author. A reader can try other writers in the genre but that’s not the same thing at all. By boycotting HC, we force our patrons to purchase the books they want to read, which increases HC’s sales.

    We need data that connects free digital content to increased sales of paid digital content. I’ve heard anecdotal stories of this for physical books, (for Eat, Pray, Love), but for-profit corporations tend to make decisions based on hard data.

    Data on the impact of free digital media on sales in the music and film industries is unfortunately a mixed bag, (though there may be an opportunity in working directly with the creative folks, i.e. in this case, authors).

    The moral argument is moot in this debate. If no correlation can be shown for unlimited e-book loans, then libraries need to accept that and prepare to innovate to deal with this new reality.

  19. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    @pwsatkinson. You’ve zeroed in on a key point. To make real progress on this issue, you need hard data that shows ebook sales are helped, not harmed, by library ebook lending to mobile ebook reading devices. This wouldn’t be a trivial study to design and carry out but so much is riding on understanding this issue that we really need to tackle it. The arguments on each side will be a lot easier if we can model their likely impacts with real data. It would be ideal if a study like this were done cooperatively with librarians, publishers and authors. This would ensure that the design of the study was robust and would help get buy-in for the outcomes. I’d guess that for a study like this to be convincing, it would need to operate over a fairly long timeframe so let’s start soon.

  20. Robin Anderson

    Would you be willing to personally “buy” an ebook that would only let you look at it 26 times?
    Especially if it cost the same as the paper book.
    I know I wouldn’t.

  21. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    @Robin. No, I probably wouldn’t buy an ebook as a consumer under these conditions. However, I would be happy to pay a smaller sum than the retail price to rent the ebook for my personal use for a short term. In my case, I’d probably be fine to pay about $5 to rent a $20 ebook for a couple of weeks.

    But getting back to your scenario, the the library situation is different because libraries are in the business of high-volume lending and it’s the purpose for which they buy the books. That’s a very different purpose from mine when I buy a book. So *their* customers/patrons only expect to borrow the ebook temporarily and in this respect you could say it’s “fit for purpose” because it allows them to do exactly this and patrons would have exactly the same experience as they would with an unlimited-lending ebook.

    I’d see the 26 loan limit for libraries as analogous to the music or film industries which will sell/license a CD or DVD to a private consumer for one price and — rightly — sell/license it to a radio station, TV channel, or football stadium for a higher price because they are acquiring it to supply an audience of many rather than one. Software is similarly licensed differently in different situations. If it seems odd with ebooks, it’s only because we’re still seeing them as a facsimile of physical books.

    The issue is really one of cost — purchase price for the library and opportunity cost from lost sales for the publishers and authors. These can be reflected in both the sale price of the item and in its usage terms.

  22. 00Bob

    pwsatkinson you’re mistaken. There is an alternative option to libraries for the public to source books. It’s called the web. If a book’s popular e.g. Harry Potter then chances are it’ll be available to download via P2P software, torrents etc within a couple of days of the hardcopy release. Is it legal? No. Is it ethical, maybe. If the book’s rubbish or otherwise unsuitable people won’t buy it anyhow so the pirated version is no loss. If the book’s good then they will if they can. Either way there’s no loss to publishersauthors. How does this differ to the current process with libraries? It means the library doesn’t have to buy a copy. End result, publishers slit their own throat as more profit is lost as people are forced to go the free route to see if something’s worth buying. And of course once you have a copy there is a loss of impetus to get it legalised, though a solid dead tree copy is always good – assuming sufficient shelf space.

    Baen, a small but very popular publishing company, operate on the assumption that electronic books are good and that piracy, while illegal, is free advertising. (Not sure how that translates for library borrowing of course). At the end of the day people either will or won’t buy books. Access to a pirated copy only minimally impacts that and may in fact, like libraries, be a positive.

    Unlimited book loans would have the advantage of keeping books alive. My own library is reportedly about to scour it’s collection of anything older than 7-10 years. That’s an abomination. Half of it’s collection or more is probably older than that! Many authors have been writing longer than that, some longer than that just to write some of their series!

    Martin. You might be prepared to pay $5 a book for a two week period, I sure wouldn’t. Several hundred dollars a year just for lending privileges? That’s like working one week each year just to feed my book habit, and then if I find something I like I’ve got the expense of buy it, which I’m not complaining about.

    Oh one final thought before I sign off. What would the impact of publishers moving more into e-books as opposed to the current hybrid model be, especially if they applied such ridiculous limits to libraries? I’m just brainstorming here but it seems to me that if libraries couldn’t offer e-books freely on demand then patrons would look elsewhere i.e. the internet. Having sourced the required files elsewhere and not be able to source an physical copy the only question for library patrons would be legalising it. If publishers were being obstructionist maybe patrons wouldn’t see the need, thereby actually slashing profit margins?

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