HarperCollins President of Sales Josh Marwell posted a response to angered librarians on the Harper Library blog (which ironically features a header graphic with flowers and butterflies and the words “Library Love Fest”) concerning its recent imposition of a 26-checkout limit for library e-books.

Marwell explains that HarperCollins is “committed to libraries” but concerned that unlimited library e-book lending could “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.”

He points out that twenty-six circulations at two weeks per lend would cover a year’s worth of lending high-demand titles, and longer for less popular back-catalog titles, and as with e-book retail sales, prices for older e-books will decline to the paperback price point. “Our hope is to make the cost per circulation for e-books less than that of the corresponding physical book. In fact, the digital list price is generally 20% lower than the print version, and sold to distributors at a discount.”

It seems unlikely librarians and their partisans will find this explanation terribly reassuring. On the other hand, by replicating a lot of purchasable e-books’ advantages (the instant gratification and portability, no need to remember to return it to the library in person), library lending could very well prevent at least some sales that otherwise would have happened for e-books people only want to read once.

It remains to be seen how well this policy change is going to work out for HarperCollins, and whether the incipient boycott will change its mind. (Most boycotts don’t amount to much since the number of people boycotting is usually a fairly insignificant fraction of the overall customer base.)