Harper Collins Wants to Limit Library Circulation of Ebooks

Apparently because of Overdrive’s recent release of an ebook client for iPhones and iPad (read more about Overdrive and library ebooks here and here), Harper Collins has responded by announcing that new Harper Collins titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires. Library Journal wrote about the announcement here, and included a letter from Overdrive’s CEO Steve Potash which states that the Overdrive licensing terms for Harper Collins books will change

while still operating under the one-copy/one-user model, will include a checkout limit for each eBook licensed. Under this publisher’s requirement, for every new eBook licensed, the library (and the OverDrive platform) will make the eBook available to one customer at a time until the total number of permitted checkouts is reached.

Harper Collins issued a statement that

HarperCollins is committed to the library channel. We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries and the communities they serve for years to come.”

According to Library Journal, Harper Collins President of Sales, Josh Marwell, said that “the 26 circulation limit was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.”

In other words, they assumes a mass market paperback with a circulation period of two weeks per loan would be checked out 26 times a year. This suggests to me that they didn’t talk to any librarians; I’ve seen a Harlequin category romance, a paperback with fairly low-end paper and binding, be checked out for three to five years. A book with sturdier binding—for instance a mass market paperback from Harper Collins will typically be checked out repeatedly for two to five years, often circulating as many as 100 times. And then there are the library bound mass market paperbacks which can last much much longer.

I want authors to be paid; I want publishing professionals to be paid. This is not the way to do it. This serves to limit circulation—and limit readers, while essentially punishing libraries who are already under siege.

The truth of the matter is that ebook readers buy print books more frequently than the average print book reader. This is a foolish decision on Harper Collins’ part, and I supect it’s one that will be followed by other publishers.

Instead, they should look to Baen, who has found ebook sales (and free ebooks) are driving sales of print books.

There’s already a backlash on Twitter where users are responding the hashtag: #hcod.

Neil Gaiman‘s response: “I think it’s incredibly disappointing.”

You can read more about the Twitter reaction at Toby Greenwalt’s The AnalogDivide “The Publisher that Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

ETA: Cory Doctorow weighs in here. Doctorow suggests that

libraries should just stop buying DRM media for their collections. Period. It’s unsafe at any speed.

I mean it. When HarperCollins backs down and says, “Oh, no, sorry, we didn’t mean it, you can have unlimited ebook checkouts,” the libraries’ answers should be “Not good enough. We want DRM-free or nothing.” Stop buying DRM ebooks.”

It’s a nice idea in theory, but libraries buy what their users want to read. If users want books that are only available in DRM crippled versions, and libraries don’t buy them, users will retaliate by crippling library budgets even more than they have already, via numerous tax and budget decisions. Libraries are closing, all over. This kind of activism isn’t really helpful because it’s naive and privileged. Libraries are locally controlled, right down to what books they buy&mdah;and don’t buy.