Harper Collins and the Case of the Disappearing eBook

In 2011, Harper Collins Publishing declared a new policy concerning eBook lending through libraries.  In their open letter to librarians,  they argue that they, “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.”  In other words, their fear is that by giving libraries never-ending licenses, because digital copies don’t wear down over time the way physical books do, eventually they would be putting the market for books in the gutter because they are satiating a market with a product that is never needed to be replaced.  After all, the surest way to a never-ending market is planned obsolescence, right?

So their solution to this “concern” is to limit the number of library eBook license lends to twenty six lends per license.  In their letter, they say they have discussed this thoroughly with agents, distributors, librarians, etc. but nowhere do they offer any sort of research that says the average length of a hardback book is 26 reads.  I’m very curious where they come up with that number, because it seems quite arbitrary.  It seems that, instead of equating the digital copy to a physical copy, they were thinking, “about how often would we like libraries to have to renew their license?  Once a year-ish?  And they lend about two weeks at a time, so like 26 lends in a year?  Sounds good.”  Some librarians have taken it upon themselves to demonstrate how ridiculous and arbitrary this number is – my favorite being this youtube clip:

Apparently, the publisher is also trying to get OverDrive, a company that offers Digital Rights Management (DRM) services mostly for libraries, to make sure that libraries are only issuing library cards to people in their geographic jurisdiction.  It sounds like they want to include a geographic limit to each eBook license.  I can kind of understand this argument.  Many large library systems allow anyone to check out their eBooks, and it kind of makes sense, at least from a lender’s perspective, to limit who can access their books – including their eBooks – to people in their general vicinity.  I don’t, however, understand how a publisher should care about this, unless maybe they are trying to get their statistics to show a wider range of libraries checking out more books rather than NYC public libraries having all their licenses?  I really don’t know.

I think Harper Collins needs to adjust with the changing technology.  For one, they need to not freak out about new technology.  According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) LLP report (PDF), comprised of extensive interviews and surveys, in 2010, eBooks accounted for only 7% of the US market.  That means, even as recently as three years ago, 93% of the US market was still buying physical books.  A New York Times article published in May 2013 said that in 2012, eBooks accounted for 20% of publishers’ revenues.  While their percentage of the market has grown, it is still far in the minority.  The PwC report also surveyed people and found that the vast majority of people prefer physical books to eBooks, and that the main users of eReaders tend to be prolific readers who do not like lugging lots of books around with them at all times.  In their words:

The Gutenberg era is not about to come to an end. Printed books will still exist. After television, we still have cinema and radio. There is no need to fear that bound books will only be found in museums, connoisseurs’ collections, and in antique markets, or considered curiosities the same way we now view eight-track tapes.  The book industry that we know and understand today will continue to thrive, but it will be transformed by eBooks and eReaders.

Just like the music, newspaper, and television industries (and many others I’m sure) have had to adjust to changes in technology, so will the print industry.  Can you imagine what their customers would say if they tried to pull this on them as well as librarians?  It makes no sense to tell a customer, “well, if this were an actual book, it would only last for x amount of time, and so to keep us in business, we’re going to operate and charge you as if it were a physical book.”  It makes no sense, except to the businesses wanting to make money, I guess.  Customers would take their business elsewhere.  In a market economy, you cannot make decisions like this and expect to remain in business.  Instead, maybe they should transition to having some sort of a digital subscription service, the way many music, movie lending, and newspaper industries have moved to.  Learn to promote in new and innovative ways.  Be more creative on the business/marketing end instead of requiring our public libraries, who serve the public on limited and ever-decreasing budgets, to make up for this changing market.