You can’t borrow that eBook – it’s worn out!

Back in November, I wrote about why, if some publishers have their way, you may have to visit a library in person to borrow an eBook. You may perhaps have thought that the lunacy of traditional publishing when faced with new technology had excelled itself there, but think again.

A new policy from HarperCollins – not exactly a small player in the publishing world – means that libraries will have to replace eBooks regularly, as they’ll be worn out.

A year is the life of an eBook

In more detail, the new policy – reported in the Library Journal – is that new Harper Collins eBooks sold to libraries will have a licence (enforced by the Digital Rights system embedded in the files) that allows a book to be loaned only twenty-six times, before it expires.

After that, if the library wants to carry on lending the book, it will have to buy a new copy. At first glance, you might think “Well, so what? Don’t paper books wear out too?” Well, yes, they do – but if you visit any library, you’ll very likely find plenty of books that have date stamps showing they’ve been circulating for years, especially good quality hardbacks (and let’s not forget that the pricing policies of eBooks often means that they cost similar amounts to hardbacks).

Where does that figure of a year come from? Well, when you borrow a digital book from a library, typically the loan period is two weeks, and just like with real books, a library can only lend to one person at a time. If it’s a popular book that other people are waiting for – just like real ones, you can reserve them too – then that means that, potentially, those twenty six loans will be used up in just one year.

Of course, given the relatively small numbers of people borrowing from libraries now, it may well take a bit longer than that – but I think it would be naïve to imagine that as eBook borrowing becomes more popular, the publishers will make their policies more lenient. Certainly, the history of the eBook business so far would seem to suggest the opposite.

Does this affect the UK?

Despite the story first appearing in Library Journal, this isn’t a policy that’s just restricted to the USA. According to OverDrive, who run the digital systems used by many libraries, including quite a few local authorities in the UK that allow eBook lending:

This new policy affects all HarperCollins eBooks in libraries worldwide, and applies to all distributor/vendors (including OverDrive)

So, libraries that have popular eBooks now potentially face the requirement of having to pay once again for those eBooks every year. Even a book that isn’t borrowed so often may wear out in just a couple of years – and this at a time when library budgets are under particular pressure, both in the UK and elsewhere around the world.

Do publishers really understand libraries?

Magazines like The Bookseller, along with groups of users, are currently campaigning to protect UK libraries. Publishers, too, make all the right noises when you ask them about libraries.

But when a large company like HarperCollins tries something like this – and it won’t be at all surprising if others introduce similar terms – so soon after the industry’s bonkers suggestion that people not be able to download library eBooks in their own homes, you could be forgiven for wondering if they’re really just paying lip service to the idea of libraries in a digital age.

Certainly these sort of actions give the impression that they’re more worried about the potential loss of sales should people be able to borrow books too easily. Perhaps I’m a bit too much of an idealist, but I think – especially in harsh economic times – the publishers would do well to support anything that helps people to carry on reading, and learn to love books, rather than to put obstacles in the way, and make it more expensive for readers and libraries alike.

The price of books themselves is something I’ve talked about before – read this piece on Register Hardware, for example – so I shan’t go over that in detail. What I will say is that this seems like a tremendous failure of imagination on the part of HarperCollins, who have opted for the simplest solution – ask libraries to buy the book all over again – when technology could provide for far more nuanced solutions, like an incremental charge on each loan over a certain amount.

Or, indeed, they could finally wake up and accept that, just as a library owns a book outright when it buys a print version, they ought to be able to do the same with the electronic one.

More on this at BoingBoing and the New York Times.

One Reply to “You can’t borrow that eBook – it’s worn out!”

  1. Bonkers indeed !
    The simple fact that someone seems to be overlooking is that libraries don’t get to loan books for free – they pay the publisher for each loan. OK, it’s a very small amount per loan, but they still pay per loan.

    And of course, unless the publisher chooses to give copies away (as my mother did), they bought the books in the first place.

    No doubt it won’t be long (if it’s not already happened) before the printed books industry cries about how people are downloading stuff – and so we need even more restrictions and penalties.

    Incidentally, on the subject of ebook pricing. My mother has signed with some small new startup in Australia who are doing her books in electronic form (and also print for down under). Pricing is set by them, I don’t believe we have a say.
    I did start to look at doing it myself, but I’ve been struggling to find time.

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