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Really, HarperCollins?

My dog turns nine this year. He’s my library dog – I started library school shortly after Cooper came bounding into my tiny apartment, hellbent on stealing my roommate’s bras. My puppy’s graying muzzle made me realize that I’m not a new librarian anymore. So forgive me this little trip down memory lane.

Lo these many years ago, I worked as a reference librarian at a library that signed up with these newfangled services  NetLibrary and Overdrive. I made umpteen Powerpoints for staff and patrons on how to download ebooks (it wasn’t any simpler then). Patrons thought we were making the term “e-book” (and it had a hyphen) up. Who would ever want to read on a screen? But a few tried it. It was often a resource of last resort – the only item we had on the subject they needed was an ebook or all the paper copies were out. But every person who tried it asked me the same thing: why can’t more than one person have a “book” at the same time? I usually told them that it was how the vendors structured the service and they didn’t want to be book Napster, but agreed it was kind of silly. One guy argued with me about it for several minutes, thinking I was unclear on how digital information worked (yet somehow capable of designing the entire ebook distribution infrastructure).

Explaining vendor policies to patrons is an exquisite kind of torment. We’re bound by them and often feel that we have to sign up for services with restrictions we don’t like in order to meet patron demand, yet libraries take the brunt of the blame from our patrons. My consortium manages an Overdrive collection for participating members and I do not envy my coworkers the task of explaining the HarperCollins mess to our members and to the patrons that contact us (and I really feel for our member libraries who have seen an explosion in interest in ebooks).

I spend most of my time these days at small-to-tiny public libraries. They want to offer ebooks and thanks to their consortium membership, they sometimes can. Some of them are too small and broke to buy into our Overdrive membership. These are seriously committed, hard-working librarians who offer vital services and love their communities. If HarperCollins wants to argue that books usually get 26 circs, fine. Come to my libraries and watch them carefully repair their materials with book tape. Watch them fret over the cost of buying one copy of each book on the best seller list and trying to decide which of the top ten they absolutely have to buy. Come spend time with librarians who build collections on the kindness of their patrons who buy books and donate them when they’ve read them. If they learn to carefully patch together the bits and bytes in an ebook, can they eke 40 circs out of it? Can their patrons donate their used copies from their kindles and ipads?

I know, I know, publishers need to make money. I get that, I’m sympathetic – I’d like it if libraries and librarians (and authors, for that matter) could make more money. But we’re on your side. We want people to want your product. We want to build so much buzz for that first-time author that our wait list becomes unbearable and people buy their own copies (and then give them to us when they’re done). You want to lease us your materials. We could probably work with that – lots of libraries lease paper books, after all. But we decide when to lease and when to buy.

And if you’re going to use this technology to impose restrictions on us, why not use it to break out of the paper-based mental model a little bit? Librarians are going to be stuck explaining this policy to patrons, who are going to walk out thinking we’re fools for going along with this. How can we, with straight faces, tell the book-loving public that ebooks are going to really catch on if we also have to tell them that ebooks are actually *more* restrictive than paper. If they’re going to self-destruct, at least let multiple people read them simultaneously. It’s just sad that we – and by we, I mean everyone: readers, librarians, authors, publishers, everyone who consumes information – are looking at a whole new way to distribute and consume content and the first thing that happens is a move to cut libraries out of the picture.

As for the publisher “concern” over consortia – are you kidding me? This feel like insult on top of injury in light of Connecticut’s recent budget announcements. Connecticut has two statewide programs that really define our library services – Connecitcard, which is statewide reciprocal borrowing, and Connecticar, which is a little group of vans that move library materials around the state. These are relatively cheap programs that make our libraries incredibly powerful. Of course, they’re on the chopping block in the governor’s budget. Shared resources make every library in Connecticut better. I work for the largest consortium in the state and have seen the power of those programs magnified with even more resource sharing. As it is, our libraries that don’t participate in our Overdrive program find themselves with lots of confused patrons who can’t figure out why they can go to the library in the next town over and borrow physical materials but not digital items. If the ability to share a collection goes away, I can’t imagine it will mean anything but lost customers for Overdrive.

If we’re really about information and not just books, we have to figure this out. We’re just putting more and more middlemen in between our patrons and the content they want. Now it’s not just vendors, but the software they choose and platforms they’ll support and policies they’ll create. Ebooks should be an exciting new frontier and librarians should be front lines innovators, working with readers to enhance their experience with the content publishers provide. This shouldn’t be the death knell for libraries. Sarah’s call to action cannot be overstated.

I realize I’m frequently drawing metaphors to the print world here, even as I’m saying we should shed those limitations. I thought about going back and “correcting” that, but left it in, because it represents the messiness of figuring out the emergence of ebooks as a viable container. A twitter buddy asked if HarperCollins was just struggling to figure this out with the rest of us or if this was really an “evil empire” kind of move. In my more charitable moments, I think they’re probably working their way through this shift and hey, at least they sell to libraries.

But this is a decision that treats libraries like freeloaders, like the cousin who crashes on your couch “for a week” between jobs and is still there months later, running up your electric bill and eating your good cheese. Libraries are a vital part of the publishing world, the friend who borrows a cup of sugar, and brings back your measuring cup with a cake. It’s really good cake, too, delicious enough to make the borrowed sugar a negligible cost. Don’t break down our door in the middle of the night, demanding that we give back a pound of sugar for every cup we’ve ever borrowed. Enjoy the damn cake.


10 comments for “Really, HarperCollins?”

  1. […] Really, HarperCollins? by Kate Sheehan (added 2.26.2011 6:45pm est) […]

    Posted by Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back | Librarian by Day | February 26, 2011, 6:45 pm
  2. […] author and reading communities, has been what about small public libraries? (Update: Kate Sheehan has a very eloquent post describing the impact of this decision on small public libraries and consortia). Their budgets can […]

    Posted by Discriminating Against Libraries, 26 eBook Circs at a Time | February 26, 2011, 11:25 pm
  3. First, we should stop using the words “buy” and “sell,” and call it what it is, “leasing.” We are not buying ebooks, not the way we buy print books. If HarperCollins–and the other publishers who are sure to jump on the bandwagon–really want to force ebooks into the print book mold, they will have to let us (1) decide how many licenses we want to buy, (2) offer quantity discounts, (3) buy back unused licenses, (4) let patrons give us their unused licenses, and (5) let us place our unused licenses in the book sale where patrons can purchase them at a discount.

    Having said all that, I fear that libraries are going to be on the losing end of this stick. Either HarperCollins and other publishers want to work with libraries, or they don’t. Right now they are the doorkeepers to the content that our communities want, and there’s no one in a position to force them to license their content to us, for 1 times or for 26 times. It’s going to take an act of Congress–literally, similar to the patent law’s compulsory licensing–to change that.

    Posted by sharon | February 27, 2011, 3:00 pm
  4. […] there’s the fact that a lot of libraries, especially small public libraries (maybe except those in consortia), can’t afford many eBooks right now. Affording them in the […]

    Posted by What eBook reaction best serves our patrons? | February 28, 2011, 1:43 am
  5. Regarding ” If they’re going to self-destruct, at least let multiple people read them simultaneously.” Seriously, not allowing simultaneous access of digital information is just plain ridiculous. No wonder the savviest of patrons think we don’t know what we are talking about!

    And your sugar/cake metaphor (or is it simile) is fantastic. Will be stealing that for future use (fair warning). Giving credit where credit is due of course. 😉


    Posted by Lori Ayre | February 28, 2011, 10:56 am
  6. Very interesting points that have great value. Do the publishers forget what happened to the record companies. Print, Vinyl, it all ends up in 1s and 0s at some point. Very good story from ReadWriteWeb supporting your ideas.

    Posted by willie neumann | February 28, 2011, 2:19 pm
  7. A facebook event page has been created for the boycott:
    HarperCollins Facebook Boycott Page

    Posted by Jennifer | February 28, 2011, 8:40 pm
  8. Oh, Sharon. You’re so right and it’s so depressing. I’d be on board with a model that lets us buy licenses that expire if we also had the option to buy the book in a more permanent way with a cheaper license package. I don’t actually have a problem with renting books, but only if it’s an *option* not our sole way of getting our hands on materials.

    Lori, thank you and steal away! I’m big on baking and dog metaphors – I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, with the dog.

    Posted by kate | March 1, 2011, 9:59 am
  9. In defense of publishers, limiting access to one patron at a time is a reasonable restriction. If you expect high demand, you should buy a second e-book, just as you do now when you purchase multiple copies of certain best-sellers you know will circulate: you don’t balk at paying the full price for the second copy, even though the marginal cost to the publisher for printing that second copy may be as low as $1.00. Publishers have reason to fear sharing the fate of music publishers: the music industry is about one-half the size it was a decade ago. Who has benefited? Not record companies, not retailers, not artists—many people who once made honest livings making and selling recorded music can no longer do so. Just because the technology permits it, does not mean that simultaneous, unending, unbounded distribution of content is fair, sustainable, or even beneficial. It is not a “right”. We must all accept a framework for preserving “the commons”—in this case, a viable publishing industry that compensates authors and provides a living to publishers and booksellers. As for the 26-loan limit, this is a tempest in a teapot. Very, very few copies are ever loaned out 26 times. HarperCollins probably shouldn’t have floated the idea, since they’ll gain so little by it, but in the rare event an e-book gets circulated that many times, I’d think a librarian would be happy to pay to renew a license—you’ve certainly gotten your money’s worth out of the acquisition.

    Posted by Mark | March 1, 2011, 5:44 pm
  10. Mark, I don’t inherently have a problem with the one-at-a-time approach (though it is frustrating to explain to patrons why this particular kind of digital material doesn’t behave digitally) and we do buy multiples of high-demand titles. I have a problem with using the digital nature of ebooks only to restrict.

    No one is arguing for “simultaneous, unending, unbounded distribution.” And the “nothing ever circs 26 times” argument is both untrue and irrelevant. Calling it an “acquisition” when it’s something we’re paying an annual maintenance fee on is disingenuous.

    If there was a tiered pricing structure that included an option for ownership of a digital copy (maybe that we could loan out one-at-a-time) and rentals for high-demand stuff (maybe that we could loan out a few-at-a-time), I’d be more on board. We have to solve the issues of ownership and first sale, though.

    Librarians aren’t against publishers. If anything, we’re pretty darn pro-publisher (we get nervous about self-published stuff and tend to like the publishing endorsement on the things we buy). We want to work with publishers and we want authors to make money. But we’re not willing to become content rental agencies to do it.

    Right now, ebooks are an “extra” for libraries. We lease them in addition to our print collection and loan them to a small segment of our patrons. But what happens now will set the tone for our future. This is a tempest in a teapot only because it only impacts some patrons of some libraries. But in 5, 10, 15, 20 years, we could very well look back at these years as where it all went wrong.

    Posted by kate | March 1, 2011, 6:41 pm

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