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.)


  1. This all depends on what you think publishers such as HarperCollins are trying to achieve.

    Library:Do you expect me to talk?
    Publisher:No, Mr. Library. I expect you to die.

  2. What about the fact that many ebooks cost MORE than the equivalent paperback versions?

    Not only is this new 26 checkout policy unfair to libraries, they can’t even seem to get their facts straight. Just two minutes looking at Amazon Kindle books or B&N nookbooks as compared to the paperback editions will show higher prices almost across the board for the ebook versions.

  3. At last, here’s a chance to try out this new word I just coined….

    “…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.”

    That is just a load of BULLSHEEN ! (or woudja believe MOONSHEEN?)

  4. The only thing hurting the emerging ebook eco-system are the idiots running the BPHs who think readers (and librarians) are going to buy their load of predigested, fully processed, bull-feed.

  5. My library is on a shoestring budget. They have cut hours twice in the past year, had to convert several full-time positions to part-time and completely eliminated some part-timers, and greatly reduced their book buying. Ebooks were introduced as a cost-saving mechanism, back before agency pricing when ebooks were often cheaper than paper. Wow, has that been a flop! And if there is a limit like this on the number of loans, I firmly believe they will not repurchase the ebooks once they expire. They just don’t have the money.

    I have enjoyed checking ebooks out from my library, but I have also gotten quickly addicted to my Kindle lending club so I have that resource if the library cannot help me. Either way, I’m not giving money to the publishers who seem determined to ruin ebooks as a mainstream method of enjoying their works.

  6. HarperCollins’ logic makes no more sense than arguing that libraries’ print circulation is harmful to their business. This is no less than an attack on the fundamental principle of the lending library. Let the boycott begin!

  7. Harper Collins is just plain greedy. They can try to justify it any way they want, but no one is that stupid. They should be ashamed, but apparently greed is something to be proud of in the publishing world.

    I have a list of all the HC subsidiaries next to my computer. They won’t be geting a penny from me in the future. There was a HC book I was interested in buying when all this bullpucky started. I found it through the Kindle Lending Club instead. Would have been happy to purchase before this, but I’m not about to feed their greed.

  8. Don’t get all stressed. Just remember that IRC, google search, piratebay, and rapidshare will be more than happy to instantly and permanently lend you any book you desire.

  9. While the 26 checkouts is made to sound reasonable by Harper Collins, I can tell you as a librarian that that doesn’t reflect accurately the true number of “circulations” that we get from a physical book. Most books will easily circulate more than 26 times (the most common problem is not the book wearing out, it’s the book going missing). Of course I have some colleagues mention that maybe Harper Collins is basing that number on the fact that they bindings of physical books have gotten notably worse in the last ten years. :-)

    I also think it fails to take into account that an ebook will probably only circulate a maximum of 26 times in a year (given a 2 week checkout period), if in demand. That’s because while you can return an ebook early, you really don’t have to. It is an extra step a borrower must take, and why should they bother when it will be automatically checked in when it is due.

    Libraries have long provided, among other things, the type of word-of-mouth advertising that you just can’t get any where else. People checking out books from libraries aren’t the only ones that have been getting something for nothing. Fortunately, as a profession, we’re more interested in what our patrons want than in whether a particular publishing company feels that we’re devaluing their product. So sadly, companies like Harper Collins will probably be able to do whatever they want and the consequences will be realized too late.

  10. I’m late to this discussion but I feel very strongly that a boycott is exactly the wrong approach to take.

    Though the argument about protecting the publishing infrastructure has some truth to it, it’s mostly a red herring. We as librarians need to accept that morality is not what drives corporations. They are mandated *by law* to maximise returns for shareholders which is generally measured in terms of profit.

    Unlike other boycotted items like oil or food, there is no alternate source for a favourite author. A reader can try other writers in the genre but that’s not the same thing at all. By boycotting HC, we force our patrons to purchase the books they want to read, which increases HC’s sales.

    We need data that connects free digital content to increased sales of paid digital content. I’ve heard anecdotal stories of this for physical books, (for Eat, Pray, Love), but for-profit corporations tend to make decisions based on hard data.

    Data on the impact of free digital media on sales in the music and film industries is unfortunately a mixed bag, (though there may be an opportunity in working directly with the creative folks, i.e. in this case, authors).

    But if no correlation can be shown for e-books, then libraries need to accept that the moral argument is moot in this debate and prepare to innovate to deal with this new reality.

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