These E-books Will Self-Destruct After Reading: HarperCollins to Libraries

HarperCollins wants e-books—and their licenses—to expire over time. Many lenders aren't happy. But one HC author says giving it away is good for business. Here's a story about all of that (which won't ever expire).

HarperCollins e-books

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. 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.

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  • Mary O'Dea

    1. Libraries aren't free. They are a pre-paid service, and are customers of publishers. Libraries purchase most of the material they lend.
    2. Hollywood did freak out about video rental. Video rental businesses in their turn freaked out about library lending of videos. But library lending improved the video rental business. Those whose desired titles were checked out at the library drove straight to their local video rental store and paid for a rental. For a popular film, a single library-lend could result in several paid rentals for a rental business. Similarly, libraries' e-book licenses permit only a very small number of simultaneous users; frequently one. I'd expect that the nook- or Sony Reader-owner who can't have instant-gratification for the desired library copy of a title will be very likely to buy it. Which they will be able to do in a nearly friction-free manner, without even leaving their chair.
    3. Hm. So: A HarperCollins book looks like a monograph but within it comes all of the labor-intensiveness potential of a serial publication? Really!!? So if the book is popular, I would get to process payments repeatedly? I repeat: Repeatedly? For the same? Book? That is part of why librarians hate theft. We hate re-buying and re-re-buying the same material. That added labor, plus the fact that it doesn’t fit any existing processing flow could impact negatively on our ability to buy your stuff. Especially since it would add cost to the acquisition of a ‘value removed’ product.
    4. What’s next to keep you awake at night, HarperCollins? The fact that the individual owner of a book might read it more than once? If I were you, I’d divide my efforts between: taking advantage of the fact that it is no longer impracticable to keep all of your titles available for purchase for as long as you own the rights; and contributing to the effort to stop or slow the decline in reading as a pastime.

  • loriayre

    A couple things...1) the remark that "this crowdcourced platform could one day eclipse the lending power of traditional libraries" when they are swapping a mere 600 books a day suggests the author isn't familiar with what is really happening in libraries. According to the 2008 data collected by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (this is the most recent data they have), public libraries circulated (or swapped) 2.27 billion books. has a ways to go. (Source:

    The other thing I would have liked to see mentioned in this article is that libraries lend books many times more than 26 when they are physical, in your hand versions so this limit of 26 is actually based on some wonky data. Check out this video from some librarians who did an admittedly unscientific survey of how many times their books were circulating. They found some hot titles had circulated already 50 times and were still in great condition.

  • Catherine MacDonald

    Thank you for mentioning -- we've been growing! We're now at 16,700+ users who make up a community of passionate lenders, but also enthusiastic Kindle ebook purchasers.