HarperCollins eBook Controversy: A Bad Decision for All

After considering the HarperCollins (HC) issue further, I still do not agree with HC’s decision to license their eBook content to libraries for 26 uses before destroying the content (Bosman, 2011). HC could have elected to handle this situation in a number of ways with very different results. In my opinion, HC should have worked to include the librarian community in the discussion and decision-making process earlier on and with greater transparency, so that they had a more visible voice in the process. This would have prevented libraries across the country from feeling blindsided by the decision. Instead, HC chose to set extremely strict digital rights management (DRM) protections on their eBooks and pass the decision off as thoroughly researched and documented. HC’s sales president, Josh Marwell, claims in his open letter that HC, “had discussions with librarians, and participated in the Library Journal e-book Summit and other conferences,” indicating that HC’s concerns were well-known in the library community (Marwell, 2011). However, a historical account of these activities via public company blog would have ensured that the librarian community was informed and had an opportunity to be part of the open discussion. This is an especially important point in light of Marwell’s credit of the library’s “crucial” role in the local community. From the research that I performed, I could find little if any information about HC’s activity leading up to this game-changing decision.

HC argued that their decision to limit eBook checkout to 26 uses came from findings that projected paperback book survival at up to 26 checkouts before replacement (Kingsley, 2011). However, this number is only an average and easily debatable. For instance, the Seattle Public Library reported that nearly 7,000 books in their collection were checked out more than 100 times in the year prior to HC’s decision (Gwinn, 2011), which means that each book would have been unnecessarily repurchased more than 4 times in a single year. HC seems to be attempting to fit library eBook use into one of their predefined molds rather than looking at eBooks as a completely new venture, HC is trying to liken the eBook experience to the traditional paperback experience, and the two are simply not the same. Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is limited to the eBook issue. HC is frequently the subject of author frustration as well. Rather than developing a relationship with their author’s, HC forces author works into categories that do not fit the content, assign book titles and covers that confuse the author and reader, and generally do not seem to be concerned with changing their processes to appropriately affect the times (Courtney, 2013).

While I agree that author’s rights should be considered and protected, I feel that HC’s decision goes too far. Libraries across the nation are struggling with shrinking budgets, and I know that the Texas State University constantly struggles with where their investments are best made. It is no surprise that eBooks have risen in popularity as portable reading devices have become more affordable. However, the library remains an important delivery mechanism for connecting populations that cannot afford personal book or eBook purchases with information/content. At the end of his open letter, Marshall states, “We look forward to ongoing discussions about changes in this space and will continue to look to collaborate on mutually beneficial opportunities” (Marshall, 2011). HC’s shortsighted choice put libraries across the country in a position to decide whether eBook investments with HC are more important than purchasing any other kind of content. Libraries provide a public service, and HC’s decision affects how and where resources can be best utilized. No matter how you look at it, HC’s current decision is not beneficial to libraries or patrons who have no other means of accessing these resources. This decision also potentially pits libraries against one another and will likely limit interlibrary loan opportunities. Libraries that make the investment in an eBook could potentially pay for the full 26 uses without ever having one of their local patrons access the resource before it is destroyed.

If a library can acquire a paper version of a work without any further interference from the publisher, why should the eBook be any different? Perhaps a better model would have been to determine the true market value for the eBook version instead. Even though this may have been the fairest way to address the issue, it is unlikely that HC would have viewed it as “mutually beneficial.” The truth is, HC does not appear to be interested in being “mutually beneficial” if it affects their bottom dollar or the potential for greater revenue. We are already going on three years of heated debate, and from an education/academic point of view, all HC has done it hurt their public image. Libraries across the country have rallied together in support and encouragement of one another, and open letters to HC are flowing in (Dood & Houghton-Jan, 2011). In fact, there are articles, blogs and entire websites dedicated to helping libraries decide on the best way to boycott HC for their destructive decision (Any, 2011). HC’s decision will also hurt the author in the long run. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have checked out novels from the university library, only to get hooked on the story and characters at a time when the author’s newest book was not available for check out. I ended up purchasing the paperback or eBook myself because I sis not want to wait. If the library had checked out the 26th copy of the book one person before me under the new HC model, and did not have the funds to repurchase the eBook, I would have never discovered the work and subsequently purchased the follow-up work. Author’s should ask themselves whether HC’s decision is really in their best interest, or if this is just another area where HC has failed to learn enough about the issue to make a reasonable decision.

References

Andy (February, 2011). How to Protest HarperCollins. Retrieved from http://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/how-to-protest-harpercollins-at-your-own-comfort-level/

Bosman, J. (February, 2011). A limit on lending eBooks. Retrieved from http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/a-limit-on-lending-e-books/?_php=true&_type=blogs&scp=1&sq=HarperCollins&st=cse&_r=0

Courtney, P. (June, 2013). Polly Courtney: “Now I’m back to self-publishing, I’ve regained control.” Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/20/self-publishing-polly-courtney

Dodd, D. & Houghton-Jan, S. (March, 2011). Open letter to HarperCollins. Retrieved from http://librarianinblack.net/librarianinblack/2011/03/hc.html

Gwinn, M. (April, 2011). Libraries, publishers armed for e-book showdown. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.com/html/books/2014662056_litlife04.html

Kingsley, P. (March, 2011). eBooks on borrowed time. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/06/ebooks-on-borrowed-time

Marwell, J. (March, 2011). Open letter to librarians. Retrieved from http://harperlibrary.typepad.com/my_weblog/2011/03/open-letter-to-librarians.html

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