March 15th, 2011

HarperCollins changes ebook policy

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/business/media/15libraries.html

HarperCollins changes its ebook library lending policy:

"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."

That's sort of interesting. HarperCollins' explanation is straightforward (dude, we didn't realize anyone would buy ebooks; now that we know they will, we don't intend to let people just _give_ them away). The article notes that not all publishers make their ebooks available to libraries for lending. There's some additional description/background in the article which, towards the end, includes this:

"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."

I almost don't know what to do with this. I guess the first thing I would say would be that virtually every library book sale I've ever heard of or encountered was run not by the library but by the Friends of the Library, non profit organizations separate from the library in every way. Libraries dispose of books they no longer want to keep in a variety of ways. There are buyers that will cherry pick. There are buyers that will buy everything. You can hand it off to the Friends. You can hand it off to Got Books and similar. You can set up a website and try to sell them. There are public libraries in places like Sarasota Florida that run a little bookshop within the library; I'm uncertain whether these are run by Friends or by the library itself.

But the source of books for these sales is not primarily the shelves of the library. The source is primarily donated books from the community, and it is a distinction with a variety of implications. First, people who donate books to the Friends sometimes believe those books will end up on the shelves and can get a little pissy when they see them going for a buck-a-bag for the last hour of the quarterly sale in a small town library. Second, the library switching to e-books is not what might cause that source to dry up. The community of book buyers switching to e-books is what might cause that source to dry up. And it turns out that the source drying up is the last thing libraries need to worry about.

You can think of it this way. Once upon a time, people bought cassette tapes of pre-recorded music to listen to (I know, kinda hard to believe. That's why I'm not mentioning the 8-track tapes). Many times, these tapes were used up by the original owner (possibly by them breaking and littering a highway median with shiny brown strips). But some of these tapes were still listenable when the owner was sick of owning it. These tapes were sold, sometimes, or donated (like, to a library), thus generating a small amount of revenue. As the earliest adopters of CDs switched from tapes to CDs in their car decks, they unloaded cassettes at a time when other people were still buying them new. But when the people who borrowed or bought used or recorded off the radio or whatever wanted to unload cassette tapes, they discovered that they couldn't even give them away anymore (even to libraries, which have signs saying they won't take them any more).

We're living in a world in which people buy hardcovers and softcovers and e-books. We may be in a world in which people are unloading physical books as they decide to switch to e-books, but right now, there's still a lively used market, both for out-of-print and for cheap(er) copies of books that people might otherwise buy new in another format. There will come a day when most people who are buying new books aren't buying paper books; they will buy e-books. But that won't be a world in which libraries are hurting for finding books to _sell_ to raise money. That will be a world in which you can't even give books away.

Judging by the experience with cassette tapes, anyway. (Exceptions for out-of-print, of course.)