Barbara Krasnoff

HarperCollins wants libraries to pay -- and pay -- for e-books

March 04, 2011 3:28 PM EST
Back in 1984, I wrote a book for young adults entitled Robots: Reel to Real. It didn't exactly make the best seller-list -- in fact, it was hardly noticed by the book stores -- but it sold to a lot of schools and libraries, enough so that I actually made some money on royalties (those of you who have sold books know how unexpected that can be). And it stayed on those library shelves for over a decade. 

If it had been an e-book published today by HarperCollins, there's a good chance it would have been off the shelves within a year. Or sooner.

In an open letter to librarians (in a blog titled, ironically, "Library Love Fest"), HarperCollins has laid out its new sales policy for libraries: Starting on March 7, instead of selling a single e-book "in perpetuity," it will only allow 26 circulations before the e-book must be repurchased. This is, according to the letter, to "provide a year of availability for titles with the highest demand, and much longer for other titles and core backlist."

As you can imagine, the move has elicited a storm of protest, not the least from librarians coping with drastically decreased budgets and an economically pressed user base with increased technology needs. (For example, many libraries today offer computers for people to use for job and housing research, and for students who may not have computers at home.)

One of the major assertions in the blog's comments section is that the assumption that a library will replace a book after it's been borrowed 26 times is faulty, to say the least. A couple of librarians from the Virtual Library of the Pioneer Library System (which operates out of Norman, OK) created a YouTube video in which they take five representative HarperCollins books, show each book's condition, reveal how many times the book has been borrowed, and figure out how many copies of the e-book they would have had to purchase. At least a couple of the books would have had to have been purchased two or three times -- and only one of the five books was anywhere near the end of its useful life.

Of course, it could be worse. According to a New York Times article, at least two publishers, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, don't even make their e-books available to libraries.

The music industry has been busily tearing itself apart trying to reconcile copyright, sales and technology. The publishing industry may now be doing the same -- especially since devices such as the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook have made e-books more a part of the mainstream. I hope that services such as libraries -- which are vital to the educational and informational health of our communities -- won't be caught in the crossfire.