In a creative attempt to relive the glory days of publishing, HarperCollins will require library e-books—and their licenses—to self-destruct after 26 loans, a virtual imitation of the disintegration of library books over time. Libraries, unsurprisingly, reacted with shock and dismay. The economics of e-books is still anyone's guess, so both sides have retreated into the philosophical camps of profit vs. open information.
"Our prior e-book policy for libraries dates back almost 10 years to a time when the number of e-readers was too small to measure," said HarperCollins, in a public response to the controversy. "We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system."
Under the new arrangement, licenses would have to be renewed after 26 loans, just as the publisher expects libraries would buy newer copies after their old ones fall apart. E-books are already discounted, claims Harper Collins, so its only fair that the durability of digital content not rob them of an arrangement that has existed with libraries for decades.
The backlash is not entirely surprising. Hal Varian, now Google's chief economist, predicated this very dust up a decade ago, "Just as publishers feared circulating libraries and Hollywood feared video rental outlets, today's producers of digital content fear that the Internet will dilute the value of their intellectual property," he wrote, "Perhaps some dilution will occur, but the historical record seems to suggest that the expansion of the market may well outweigh the impact of this dilution." That is, Varian found that access to cheap reading material expanded the number of readers, which, on balance, benefited sellers of content.
Popular science fiction novelist Neil Gaiman (a HarperCollins published writer, incidentally), recently released a YouTube video (below) that beautifully illustrates Varian's argument. "When the web started, I used to get really grumpy at people," he says, "I had this belief, which was completely erroneous, that if people put your stuff up on the web and you didn't tell them to take it down, you would lose your copyright."
Yet, after observing that the most pirate-heavy countries, such as Russia, actually had the best sales, he decided to experiment with putting his book for free online. "Sales of my book, through independent book stores, because that's all that we were measuring it through, went up, the following month, 300%."
Now, when the jet-set author gives a public presentation, he tells his audience, "Everybody who discovered their favorite author by being a lender book, put up your hands." The overwhelming majority of readers, he finds, do indeed become loyal fans after first receiving a book for free.
A new cottage industry of lending platforms is betting on this very experience. Booklending.com has expanded to 12,000 users since Amazon permitted lending, and facilitates as much as 600 swaps a day. Indeed, this crowdsourced platform could one day eclipse the lending power of traditional libraries.