Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Publishers and Libraries Battle over Ebook Expiration Terms

It looks like publishing companies continue the historical practice of alienating their customers, both retail and wholesale. With the rise of the ebook, publishers are now realizing that they aren't extracting nearly as much profit from readers and libraries as is possible. The New York Times yesterday had an article highlighting the current issues with the system. In particular, it seems that HarperCollins isn't satisfied with the current model of how ebook lending works between libraries and their patrons.
"For years, public libraries building their e-book collections have typically done so with the agreement from publishers that once a library buys an e-book, it can lend it out, one reader at a time, an unlimited number of times.
Last week, that agreement was upended by HarperCollins Publishers when it began enforcing new restrictions on its e-books, requiring that books be checked out only 26 times before they expire. Assuming a two-week checkout period, that is long enough for a book to last at least one year."
I can see the problems from both points of view. The publishers are obviously going to have a great deal of concern over a sales model where a library can purchase a book that will literally last forever. When a publisher sells a library a physical copy of a book, they know there is a good chance of repeat sales of the same book as it circulates and wears out physically. Obviously this will never happen to an electronic copy of the book.

At the same time, it is not a tenable model for libraries to have to repay for copies of the exact same book roughly every year for popular titles. For very popular books, this could mean repurchasing multiple copies of the same title numerous times over the years. I have a feeling that even heavily circulated physical copies of books have a useful life of over one year.

Obviously (and in my opinion, rightfully) the publishers are going to look like the bad guys in this fight. Almost every time you have profit-driven organization versus a service-driven organization in a PR fight, the latter is going to come out the victor. Libraries and their patrons are going to be the victims of the short-sighted sales model that publishers adopted with the quiet entry of ebooks into the readership market. With the growth of portable electronic devices that can display ebooks (Ipad, Kindle, etc.) this quiet entry has become a booming industry. It reminds me a lot of the newspaper industry today. They entered the field of online journalism back in the day with no sales model and now they are all struggling to determine how to make some revenue from their websites.

The lack of planning from both industries is rather galling. I don't see things getting any better, either. With the sales growth of e-readers and ubiquitousness of smart phones, ebooks are here to stay. Publishers and libraries need to agree on a sustainable model for ebook sales that in some ways reflects circulation and purchasing patterns of physical books, yet at the same time capitalizes on the low-cost creation and delivery methods of the electronic format. I'll just say this: good luck libraries. You're up against a ruthless industry who is big, bad, and wants all of your money.

What do all you readers and library patrons out there think is a reasonable compromise between the current situation and the new restrictions put forth by HarperCollins?