LAST year, Christmas was the biggest single day for e-book sales by HarperCollins.
And indications are that this year’s Christmas Day total will be even higher, given the extremely strong sales of e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook. Amazon announced on Dec. 15 that it had sold one million of its Kindles in each of the three previous weeks.
But we can also guess that the number of visitors to the e-book sections of public libraries’ Web sites is about to set a record, too.
And that is a source of great worry for publishers. In their eyes, borrowing an e-book from a library has been too easy. Worried that people will click to borrow an e-book from a library rather than click to buy it, almost all major publishers in the United States now block libraries’ access to the e-book form of either all of their titles or their most recently published ones.
Borrowing a printed book from the library imposes an inconvenience upon its patrons. “You have to walk or drive to the library, then walk or drive back to return it,” says Maja Thomas, a senior vice president of the Hachettte Book Group, in charge of its digital division.
And print copies don’t last forever; eventually, the ones that are much in demand will have to be replaced. “Selling one copy that could be lent out an infinite number of times with no friction is not a sustainable business model for us,” Ms. Thomas says. Hachette stopped making its e-books available to libraries in 2009.
E-lending is not without some friction. Software ensures that only one patron can read an e-book copy at a time, and people who see a long waiting list for a certain title may decide to buy it instead.
Explaining Simon & Schuster’s policy — it has never made its e-books available to libraries — Elinor Hirschhorn, executive vice president and chief digital officer, says, “We’re concerned that authors and publishers are made whole by library e-lending and that they aren’t losing sales that they might have made in another channel.”
Ms. Hirschhorn says the reason publishers didn’t worry about lost sales from library lending of print books is that buying a book is easier — no return trip is needed to the bookstore — and the buyer has a physical collectible after reading it. (One of my books was published by Simon & Schuster in 2008.)
To keep their overall revenue from taking a hit from lost sales to individuals, publishers need to reintroduce more inconvenience for the borrower or raise the price for the library purchaser. If making the books more costly to libraries seems a perverse idea, consider that the paperback edition of a book provides an artificially costly experience for its buyers too, in terms of waiting time. The delay in the paperback’s availability permits the publisher to separate those book buyers willing to pay a premium to read the book earlier from those only willing to pay less for what is essentially the same thing, but later.
Ms. Thomas of Hachette says: “We’ve talked with librarians about the various levers we could pull,” such as limiting the number of loans permitted or excluding recently published titles. She adds that “there’s no agreement, however, among librarians about what they would accept.”
HarperCollins is the one major publisher that has taken the step of changing the traditional arrangements with libraries.
Beginning last March, it stopped selling e-books to libraries for unlimited use, which it had been doing since 2001. Instead, it began licensing use of each e-book copy for a maximum of 26 loans. This affects only the most popular titles and has no practical effect on others. After the limit is reached, the library can repurchase access rights at a lower cost than the original price.
The move was prompted, the company said in a statement, by concerns that continuing to sell e-books on the old, unlimited terms would “in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.”
HarperCollins was brave to tamper with the sacrosanct idea that a library can do whatever it wishes with a book it obtains. The publisher’s action arguably benefits the most parties because it gives library patrons access to the latest titles in e-book form while still protecting the financial interests of publishers, authors and booksellers.
Robin Nesbitt, technical services director at the Columbus, Ohio, metropolitan library, says she does not object to HarperCollins’s limit. “At least HarperCollins allows me to have access to their titles,” she says. “I don’t mind buying a title and then might have to buy it again — I do that now with print.
“I know many libraries are mad because they think the 26 loans is too low — well, how do you know 26 is too low until you try it?”
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