Monday, August 4, 2014

In support of the HarperCollins ebook lending model for libraries

I must admit that my response is tempered by the fact that I and the other librarians in our district "purchase" the vast majority of our ebooks through OverDrive.   OverDrive hosts ebook and audiobook services and while we provide links to it on our library web pages, the site and server are independent of our district server and library sites.  I buy ebooks and audiobooks that are available only to the patrons of my library, just as a physical book would be.  OverDrive offers books from multiple publishers, including Macmillan, Random House, Penguin, Hachette, and HarperCollins (5 of the "Big 6" publishers).  While I believe that HarperCollins could have handled the initial announcement and change better, I support the change in their lending model.

HarperCollins is not the only publisher that meters (or limits) circulation of its books.   Some of Macmillan's imprints, such as Henry Holt & Co.) also offer metered access, while other subsidiaries provide unlimited access to their titles.   Random House and new (late 2013) Hachette titles are available for unlimited use.   Whether Penguin and Macmillan followed HarperCollins' lead or vice versa, I can't say.  I can confirm, however, that HarperCollins is not alone.

In OverDrive, books with metered access can be cheaper than unlimited access books.  The prices of metered books fall in line with the prices of printed books.   The Big Six Publishers and Library Lending chart from American Libraries shows how prices are affected by different lending models.   For unlimited access, prices of ebooks can be up to 3 or 4 times the price of print copies (Random House and Hachette). For Penguin (1-year expiration date) and HarperCollins (26 checkouts), the prices are comparable to their print counterparts.  A popular book like John Green's The Fault in Our Stars costs $16.99 for 12-month access, compared to a print copy at $17.61 from Follett School Solutions.   On the other hand, an e-book copy of Jennifer E. Smith's This Is What Happy Looks Like costs $54.00 for a one copy/one user license, and Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson costs $56.97 for a single digital copy.   Furthermore, a popular book like The Fault in Our Stars is likely to require at least one additional print copy for circulation in a 2,000-plus student high school, and many popular books are returned late - and sometimes not at all - requiring further purchases.   In light of that, $16.99 annually for a copy that cannot be lost or stolen is, from my perspective, completely reasonable.  

You can see the prices of ebooks, including information about the publisher, format, and lending model, in these screen shots.

A third reason I support the HarperCollins decision is outlined in the comments to the article on the Mediabistro site.  angieflynn presents an author's perspective.  As I stated previously, a popular print book is likely to experience wear and tear over time, and it runs the further risk of being lost or simply not returned.  The library must then replace the book.  A digital copy, on the other hand, will not wear out and is automatically returned at the end of the loan period, if not returned sooner by the user.  If an single ebook is sold at the same price as a print book and does not require further purchase, the author sells fewer copies.  The alternatives are to charge substantially more for a digital copy or to enforce some sort of loan period with a set expiration.

Some of those who disagree with HarperCollins' stance look at ebook sales in general, I suspect.  These sales refer more to individual consumers than to libraries.  OverDrive says it has captured the ebook business of 90% of public libraries, and its renewal rate is 99% (Seave, 2013).   Sales to individuals are final; there is no issue of access or loan.  But when libraries are involved, it appears that they are buying not directly from the publishers but rather through a service like OverDrive.   OverDrive takes care of nearly all management issues, and in the case of metered books, it alerts the user (library) to titles with expiration pending, and renewal is at the library's discretion.

I fully comprehend why HarperCollins' policy change three years ago ignited such an uproar.  No one likes the rules of a game changed once the game is underway.  But because I have only experienced the purchase of ebooks for my library on this side of the policy (metered access) change, I am more understanding and can accept the policy without feeling wronged or betrayed.


angieflynn. (2011). HarperCollins responds to library ebook controversy [blog comment].  Retrieved from

Big six publishers and library lending. (2013). American Libraries Magazine. Retrieved from

Purchase order history [report / image]. (2014). OverDrive marketplace.  Retrieved from

Seave, A. (2013, Nov. 11). Are digital libraries a 'winner-takes-all' market?  OverDrive hopes so. Forbes. Retrieved from  

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