Why Is HarperCollins Picking On Libraries?

It's not every day that you get to refer to a story where someone uses a great word like "gobsmacked"  but that's the case this morning. What does Philadelphia librarian Anne Silvers Lee say her colleague and she are so astonished about? A decision by HarperCollins to limit the number of times an e-book can be checked out to 26.

"We want e-books in our collections, our customers are telling us they want e-books, so I want to be able to get e-books from all the publishers," she tells the New York Times' Julie Bosman. "I also need to do it in a way that is not going to be exorbitantly expensive."

The American Library Association released a statement yesterday saying that restrictions on library e-book lending threaten access to information. It also points out that "libraries have proven to be powerful marketing tools for e-books," citing a white paper by library e-book distributor OverDrive that attributes the runaway success of the paperback version of Eat, Pray, Love to its having "changed hands thousands of times through book clubs and libraries, scoring rave reviews and stirring up chatter among leading library blogs."



Speaking of blogs, in the seemingly ironically named "Library Love Fest," HarperCollins sales president Josh Marwell blogs that the current system of selling e-books in perpetuity 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." I can't believe that he left out that it would probably lead to higher cholesterol levels and restless leg syndrome, too.

I love libraries (I've served on the board of my community's library for more than a dozen years). I love e-books (I prefer paper, but e-books on my iPad Touch have certainly expanded both my options and whiled away the wait on many a line). And I like the idea of writers getting paid. So this is an issue that hits home. I sought some input from my favorite publisher and the world's greatest librarian, Sue Feir.

My publisher friend wonders why HarperCollins is choosing to pick on libraries to address the "white elephant in the room," which is a model for leasing electronic editions of a book at a shifting schedule of price points for varying lengths of time. He says, in fact, that in choosing to broach the issue with the small library market rather than the much larger general reading public, HarperCollins is -- another great word forthcoming -- being "pusillanimous" and is "hiding behind the smoke screen of this being in the authors' interests."

Feir says that pressure on library budgets isn't coming from e-books in and of themselves but rather from the proliferation of options that readers now have to consume information.

"I like to give the example of when Gone with the Wind was published. Library X maybe bought five hardback copies to lend," she says. "Now when a popular new title comes out we need it in hardback, large print, on audio CD, on downloadable audio and in e-book formats. The cost has actually so escalated to own that one title."

But here's another point that both my friends make. Physical books are more expensive to produce, process and purchase, but they don't have an unlimited shelf life either. I'm sure I've read some books over the years that have more than 26 date stamps in the back, but I don't think too many. And those that do are in pretty ratty condition by then.

It's tempting to think that civilization as we know it is threatened by digitization if you've been making your living as part of the established order. That's because it probably is. Other headlines from just yesterday include "Jon Bon Jovi accuses Steve Jobs of being 'personally responsible for killing the music business'" and [Conde Nast director of editorial operations] "Rick Levine Says Apple is Hurting Tablet Market" (by it's stranglehold on the market and onerous subscription model).

The economics of publishing, in all forms, will continue to evolve in ways we can only guess at. Ultimately, I believe this is good for the consumer. Artists and craftsmen will find a way to reach their audiences. And it's getting easier, not harder. It's the people who make a living in the middle whose ranks will be thinned, or they will find that the tasks they've traditionally performed (taking order from Borders) will evolve into something else (spreading the word about an instant e-book). The challenge for us all, no matter which hat we're wearing, is to insure that no one who needs information is left behind.

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