[A2k] New York Times: As Library E-Books Live Long, Publisher Sets Expiration Date

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Tue Mar 15 08:10:51 PDT 2011

March 14, 2011
As Library E-Books Live Long, Publisher Sets Expiration Date
Imagine the perfect library book. Its pages don’t tear. Its spine is  
unbreakable. It can be checked out from home. And it can never get lost.

The value of this magically convenient library book — otherwise known  
as an e-book — is the subject of a fresh and furious debate in the  
publishing world. 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.

What could have been a simple, barely noticed change in policy has  
galvanized librarians across the country, many of whom called the new  
rule unfair and vowed to boycott e-books from HarperCollins, the  
publisher of Doris Lessing, Sarah Palin and Joyce Carol Oates.

“People just felt gobsmacked,” said Anne Silvers Lee, the chief of the  
materials management division of the Free Library of Philadelphia,  
which has temporarily stopped buying HarperCollins e-books. “We want e- 
books in our collections, our customers are telling us they want e- 
books, so I want to be able to get e-books from all the publishers. I  
also need to do it in a way that is not going to be exorbitantly  

But some librarians said the change, however unwelcome, had ignited a  
public conversation about e-books in libraries that was long overdue.  
While librarians are pushing for more e-books to satisfy demand from  
patrons, publishers, with an eye to their bottom lines, are  
reconsidering how much the access to their e-books should be worth.

“People are agitated for very good reasons,” said Roberta Stevens, the  
president of the American Library Association. “Library budgets are,  
at best, stagnant. E-book usage has been surging. And the other part  
of it is that there is grave concern that this model would be used by  
other publishers.”

Even in the retail marketplace, the question of how much an e-book can  
cost is far from settled. Publishers resisted the standard $9.99 price  
that Amazon once set on many e-books, and last spring, several major  
publishers moved to a model that allows them set their own prices.

This month, Random House, the lone holdout among the six biggest trade  
publishers, finally joined in switching to the agency model. Now many  
newly released books are priced from $12.99 to $14.99, while  
discounted titles are regularly as low as $2.99.

HarperCollins, in its defense, pointed out that its policy for  
libraries was a decade old, made long before e-books were as popular  
as they are today. The new policy applies to newly acquired books. “We  
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 ecosystem, 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,” the company  
said in a statement.

It is still a surprise to many consumers that e-books are available in  
libraries at all. Particularly in the last several years, libraries  
have been expanding their e-book collections, often through OverDrive,  
a large provider of e-books to public libraries and schools.  
Nationwide, some 66 percent of public libraries offer free e-books to  
their patrons, according to the American Library Association.

For many libraries, interest from patrons who want to check out e- 
books has been skyrocketing. At the New York Public Library, e-book  
use is 36 percent higher than it was only one year ago. Demand has  
been especially strong since December, several librarians said,  
because e-readers were popular holiday gifts.

“As our readership goes online, our materials dollars are going  
online,” said Christopher Platt, the director of collections and  
circulating operations for the New York Public Library.

In borrowing terms, e-books have been treated much like print books.  
They are typically available to one user at a time, often for a seven-  
or 14-day period. But unlike print books, library users don’t have to  
show up at the library to pick them up — e-books can be downloaded  
from home, onto mobile devices, personal computers and e-readers,  
including Nooks, Sony Readers, laptops and smartphones. (Library e- 
books cannot be read on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader.) After the  
designated checkout period, the e-book automatically expires from the  
borrower’s account.

The ease with which e-books can be borrowed from libraries —  
potentially turning e-book buyers into e-book borrowers — makes some  
publishers uncomfortable. Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, two of the  
largest trade publishers in the United States, do not make their e- 
books available to libraries at all.

“We are working diligently to try to find terms that satisfy the needs  
of the libraries and protect the value of our intellectual property,”  
John Sargent, the chief executive of Macmillan, said in an e-mail.  
“When we determine those terms, we will sell e-books to libraries. At  
present we do not.”

And those publishers that do make their e-books available in libraries  
said that the current pricing agreements might need to be updated.

Random House, for example, has no immediate plans to change the terms  
of its agreements with libraries, said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman  
for the publisher, but has not ruled it out in the future.

“Anything we institute ahead we’d really want to talk through with the  
community and together understand what makes sense for us both,” Mr.  
Applebaum said. “We’re open to changes in the future which are in  
reasonable step with the expectations and realities of the overall  
library communities.”

Publishers are nervous that e-book borrowing in libraries will  
cannibalize e-book retail sales. They also lose out on revenue  
realized as libraries replace tattered print books or supplement  
hardcover editions with paperbacks, a common practice. Sales to  
libraries can account for 7 to 9 percent of a publisher’s overall  
revenue, two major publishers said.

But e-books have downsides for libraries, too. Many libraries dispose  
of their unread books through used-book sales, a source of revenue  
that unread e-books can’t provide.

The American Library Association has assembled two task forces to  
study the issue.

Even among the librarians who have stopped buying HarperCollins e- 
books, many said that there might have to be a compromise.

“I can see their side of it,” said Lisa Sampley, the collection  
services manager in the Springfield-Greene County Library District in  
Springfield, Mo. “I’m hoping that if other publishers try to change  
the model, they think about the libraries and how it will affect us.  
But I’m sure there is some kind of model that could work for us both.”


Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)
thiru at keionline.org

Tel: +41 22 791 6727
Mobile: +41 76 508 0997

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