Today on Twitter, LizB asked for a link to a post explaining the HarperCollins boycott, ALA bill of rights, readers rights, etc. and how this is different from other “don’t buys.” I don’t know if she found it, but I told her I’d give it a whirl. Here goes.
Initially, I was put off by the idea of a boycott. It seemed like denying patrons access to material based on our own interests. Libraries are quick to absorb cuts from outside forces without passing that pain onto our patrons. It’s our first instinct- to protect our members and preserve our services and make due with what we have. It works if we’re talking about a temporary cut to get us through lean times, but it falls apart when it becomes a lifestyle. It allows the public to think we’re fine without their help and it encourages a martyr attitude in library workers.
Librarians have long said that we need a seat at the table in the ebook debate, but we have yet to figure out how to take one. We’ve relied on other companies like Overdrive to do our negotiating for us. In some ways, this makes sense- Overdrive has a deal with publishers and we all have a deal with Overdrive. It’s sort like collective bargaining, except when it’s not. Librarians have railed against DRM and restrictive licensing agreements, but calls for boycotts have not been heeded. We’re stuck in the middle – boycotting DRM meant boycotting ebooks for many libraries. Helplessness was the primary feeling expressed.
Meanwhile, publishers were facing declining sales and ebooks raised the specter of pirated books. Publishing is a business and after watching the music and movie business struggle for years, publishers were understandably nervous. Authors, too. Libraries want to make everyone happy in a scary market – we want authors to make money, we want publishers to sell us stuff, we want our patrons to be happy and we want our communities to value their libraries. But you can’t get on an elevator these days without being asked if libraries are going to close once books go digital. And everyone’s had a few scary budget seasons.
This is all an oversimplification, of course, but the point is that everyone from authors to publishers to librarians to booksellers is trying to figure out how to ride the ebook wave without drowning. So far, the answer has been to treat ebooks as much like print as possible – an ebook can be checked out by one person for a set period of time. It expires, so no overdue charges, which makes patrons happy and libraries that depend on fines for income nervous. From the publisher’s perspective, it’s not like print at all, because it never falls apart. There’s no wear and tear. From the library perspective, it’s not like print at all because it’s only viable for a certain percentage of our patrons and we don’t have any of our normal first-sale doctrine rights. We can’t sell a gently used extra in our booksales, people can’t donate their old copies to us, and let’s not even talk about bookgroups and ILL.
HarperCollins has this idea to essentially impose an annual fee on their ebook titles. 26 circulations at 2 weeks a circ is about a year of constant use. This makes it sort of more like a print book for them and not at all like a print book to libraries. But I’m glad they’re trying something (though I’d prefer they try tiered pricing), because we needed to have the discussion we’re all having now.
So, a boycott was hatched. This is not normally our thing. Librarians don’t block access, we throw our doors open as wide as we can afford to. Telling our patrons we wouldn’t be getting a book because we don’t like a publisher policy isn’t our style. It feels a little icky. The Library Bill of Rights is all about ensuring access and challenging censorship. We buy stuff we don’t personally or professionally like all the time. How is this different?
I think we have the wrong imagery in mind when we talk about this boycott. This isn’t a picket line demanding that HarperCollins acquiesce to our demands. This is a tactic. It feels unfamiliar because we never vote with our wallets. As consumers, we do this all the time. Groups organize boycotts to get companies to change their advertising or corporate policy and the two sides come to an agreement and then we can shop at Target again. As librarians, we don’t really have enough money to use it as a bargaining chip. But we’re trying it with this boycott. The demand isn’t to go back to the way things were, because that isn’t going to work for anyone. It’s to come together to find a new solution that will help us all.
Ebooks aren’t our bread and butter… yet. We are all of us standing on the edge of a major sea change in publishing, reading, and writing. The annual fee structure isn’t good for libraries or their patrons and we have a responsibility to our members and our funders to fight for a model that we can live with. Right now, this is a small percentage of our circulation, but it’s only going to grow. This is the ground floor and we have to build something that won’t collapse on top of us. This is about our readers’ rights in the long haul.
This isn’t a boycott of HarperCollins indefinitely. This isn’t even going to block library patrons’ access to these materials (we’re certainly not the only ebook game in town and I don’t think everyone has said they’d stop buying print versions of HarperCollins books). This is a chance to involve the early ebook adopters that use the library in shaping how the ebook revolution turns out. As Karen Schneider said on twitter today: this isn’t asking for a divorce, it’s asking for a conversation.
I’d like to think that HarperCollins put this policy out there as an opening move. Until now, libraryland’s response to ebook restrictions has been to prevaricate, form committees, and worry. The boycott of HarperCollins is a resounding and clear response to a proposal that will hurt libraries and readers.
Liz asked how this related to the ALA bill of rights. The boycott isn’t about the content of the materials, which is the focus of the ALA Bill of Rights, it’s about the price. Libraries always make decisions based on price. I have told patrons that while I would love to buy the book they asked for, it simply costs too much. I’m sure we’d all love to buy ebooks from all of the big publishers (including the two that don’t sell ebooks to libraries), but the cost of this policy is simply too high.
New things are messy. Ebooks are new, they’re messy for everyone involved. Publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, and readers have to slog through the messy beginnings together. This boycott isn’t designed to punish HarperCollins for trying to come up with a solution, it’s a megaphone for libraries to advocate for ourselves and our members while the ebook world is still fresh and malleable. No one wants to infringe on readers’ rights, least of all librarians. The proposed boycott is an attempt to protect those rights while we still can.