HarperCollins Seeks to Limit Digital Lending, Access Patron Data, Generally Piss Off Readers

imagePublishers are looking to limit how libraries do digital lending. It’s infuriating. I’m going to have to go wear my unsexy mouthguard, I’m clenching my jaw to steel-bending proportions the more I read.

Start here: Bobbi L. Newman explained the great crapful news from OverDrive about digital lending:

Digital book sales are now a significant percentage of all publisher and author revenue. As a result several trade publishers are re-evaluating eBook licensing terms for library lending services. Publishers are expressing concern and debating their digital future where a single eBook license to a library may never expire, never wear out, and never need replacement….

Under this publisher’s requirement, for every new eBook licensed, the library (and the OverDrive platform) will make the eBook available to one customer at a time until the total number of permitted checkouts is reached.

In other words, the publisher sets a limit to the number of times a digital book can be lent, then when that limit is reached, that library must purchase another copy.

But wait! There’s more! That mysterious “publishers” referred to in the OverDrive email also says they want access to patron information. From the original OverDrive Update (available as a PDF on LibrarianByDay):

our publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.).

Let’s not let libraries do their own jobs. That would be a terrible thing.

But Library Journal’s Josh Hadro has the megascoop: guess which publisher it was?


HarperCollins Caps Loans on Ebook Circulations.

In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.
Mention of the new terms was first made in a letter from OverDrive CEO Steve Potash to customers yesterday. He wrote:

“[W]e have been required to accept and accommodate new terms for eBook lending as established by certain publishers. Next week, OverDrive will communicate a licensing change from a publisher that, while still operating under the one-copy/one-user model, will include a checkout limit for each eBook licensed. Under this publisher’s requirement, for every new eBook licensed, the library (and the OverDrive platform) will make the eBook available to one customer at a time until the total number of permitted checkouts is reached.”
Though the letter leaves the publisher unnamed, HarperCollins confirmed today to LJ that it is the publisher referred to.

The publisher also issued a short statement: “HarperCollins is committed to the library channel. We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries and the communities they serve for years to come.”

Josh Marwell, President, Sales for HarperCollins, told LJ that the 26 circulation limit was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.

Cue me saying, “Oh, Harper. What are you thinking?!”

After library digital lending was a very big topic at Tools of Change and at DBW, it seems we’d taken two symbolic steps forward in using dialogue to bridge the huge gulf between libraries/their patrons and publishers, but while our readerly backs were turned, Harper leaped backwards.

Lip service to the reader, we has some.

With libraries serving as gateways to reading addictions, and an opportunity to try books that readers might not otherwise afford, this decision seems greedy at best and dumbfounding at worst. I understand their desire to equate a paper copy’s disintegration at the hands of multiple readers with the digital copy being lent the same number of times, but the upshot of that policy is to say to libraries, “We want you, with your shrinking budgets and your closing branches, to buy more books. KThxbye!”  This is not a business model that works. It’s a business model that insults readers and libraries.

What do you think? Do you think HarperCollins is taking a step toward preserving its bottom line, or is this a step toward bottoming out their own progress?

ETA: Eric Hellman has a wider-angle examination of the situation, saying, “While I don’t think it’s tenable over the long term for libraries to specialize in inconvenience, I still think it’s very important for libraries to be offering ebooks through services such as Overdrive. Even if the lending models of today turn out to be transitional, they help everyone involved become comfortable with library ebooks. Once the library ebook experience becomes embedded in our everyday lives, readers, publishers, authors and librarians will be able to recognize the novel digital distribution models that benefit everyone.”

ETA: Courtney Milan examines the news from her own reader’s perspective, saying, “Libraries are the future of reading. When the economy is down, we need to make it easier for people to buy and read books for free, not harder. It is stupid to sacrifice tomorrow’s book buyers for today’s dollars, especially when it’s obvious that the source in question doesn’t have any more dollars to give you

ETA: Literary Sluts have an excellent point: “At the end of the day, the only reason I ever recommended the Nook, Sony, or Kobo readers over the Kindle was access to eBooks through your library. I believe today’s announcement is a sign of things to come for Overdrive and that soon there will be no advantage at all to those eReaders.”

ETA: Peter Brantley has a savory idea: “I would love to see ALA and libraries do a hall of shame. For a day: pull off Harper frontlist books from shelves with PR.”

ETA: I found this amazing link: Lendle, a librarian-coordinated network of lending Kindle books to people who want to borrow them. Found via this thought-provoking blog post.


Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    SonomaLass says:

    I could not agree more, except that I don’t have a sexy mouthguard. I may wear my retainer in solidarity, however.

    Kicking libraries and patrons when they are down, financially speaking, is bad publisher PR. While I know a lot of readers don’t pay attention to publisher brands, this may be an exception (and not a beneficial one). Stooopid.

  2. 2
    Michael H says:

    I wonder if Overdrive is applying these restrictions to ebooks from all publishers or just those from Harper-Collins. There are bound to be publishers with fewer restrictions on ebook lending.

  3. 3
    Alley says:

    26 seems like a strange number considering I’m still number (*checks*) 22 in queue for a new book at my library and I think started out at #45 or so.  Clearly books are being read by more than 26 library patrons before being replaced.  I’d think a policy of licenses being good for two years or something would make more sense, but what do I know?

    I just see this resulting in libraries simply not carrying very much in the way of digital books.

  4. 4
    Mireya says:

    Let’s imagine that other publishers follow suit, let’s say, the same 5 that developed what we know as the Agency model for pricing … I “see” a lot more author rants about ebook piracy in our futures that’s fer sure.

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    @mireya: oh please no. I hope you are not right. Those author rants make me cringe like cringing has never been cringed before.

  6. 6

    Libraries will simply opt not to carry HC’s eBooks. Why bother paying extortionist rates when you carry the veto power? Readers will be the losers in this tussle. Problem for the libraries is that readers will blame the libraries for not carrying e-versions of the books they want. If libraries then proceed to explain to irritated readers who’s to blame for the lack of eBooks, the pub will have potential future paying customers ticked off thereby ensuring that it will lose money in the long term. Short term gain long term pain for the pub; blame for the libraries; nada, zip, nyet for the reader.

  7. 7
    Neveth says:

    it was infuriating enough until I got to the 26 limit. Oh please. Even paperbacks make it 26 times before they get so damaged they have to be scrapped. Here’s a newsflash for those people : half the work the back-end of a library does is repair the books. Fix torn covers, glue pages back in, the only breaking point is if a portion of a page with text on it has been torn out.

    oh man. I have such rage for Harper right now.

  8. 8
    whiteoak says:

    How can they equate digital copies with hard copies?  And when will they stop trying to sell even more?  I am not putting that correctly but I used to buy paperbacks, I read them, I gave them to my mother, she read them, she gave them to my sister who read them and then the books were given to the local library, either for their shelves or for their sales.  With my NookColor I can’t hardly lend the books out to someone else to read so more copies do need to be bought.  At some point this greediness will need to be tempered with intelligence.

  9. 9
    darlynne says:

    Honest to God, could Harper Collins issue a bigger “fuck you” to all of us than this? To the libraries that are barely staying open, to the growing numbers who rely on those struggling libraries?

    You can’t tell me (well, they can try, but my fingers are in my ears) that physical books are only lent 26 times over the course of their lifetime, that libraries replace a book before patron 27 gets to read it? I don’t think so. Protecting their authors? I wish.

    THIS makes me angrier than the douche-bag price-fixing-by-any-other-name agency model. THIS one I’m going to the mat for.

  10. 10

    BTW, I’m curious how HC came up with the 26 loans figure. Any librarian will tell you that even mmpbs have a much longer loan life; trades and hcs much much more.

  11. 11
    library addict says:

    26 times?  Print books, unless they are totally abused by a library patron, are check-out-able more than 26 times.

    I imagine the geo restrictions thing is mostly aimed at the Free Library of Philadelphia which allows non-US residents to join for an annual fee.  My library also allows out of state membership for a fee, but I think you have to be a US citizen.  Of course, my library doesn’t have ebook lending, but they do use the digital audio book system. 

    Totally NOT cool, Harper Collins.

  12. 12
    Emily says:

    Josh Marwell, President, Sales for HarperCollins, told LJ that the 26 circulation limit was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.

    This stood out to me. I borrow books regularly from the library. It is laughable to think that my library would replace a book after 26 lendings (in a popular release that would be over the span of one-two years). Many of the books in my county library system are donated. The books are worn. They are (sometimes) torn. They are rarely replaced, and especially not after only such a short period of time. This is even more the case for the books that do not come from a donor.

    I don’t have an eReader and I think my library placed their eLending on hold because of issues so right now this doesn’t affect me. I just had to say how laughable I find the comparison of the lifespan of a library book to this new 26 lending policy. It bothers me because decisions like this make me feel like the publishers don’t see the value in the library system. If only they knew how many authors are discovered in the library which then leads to purchases. And that’s their goal, right, to make money?

  13. 13
    Amanda says:

    I’m on my local library board.  I’m treasurer.  I know how much $$$ we spend on books and such.  I’m ready to call the publisher with a WTF???  Yeah, they just pretty much shot themselves in the foot.  But, I think there are going to be a lot of growing pains as we move away from print to e formats.  This is just perhaps one of them.

    Protecting authors?  What about garage sales? Many of my book-addicted friends only come out when there are books at a garage sale and nose through all the titles.  No one gets any royalties from the 25 cent box. The person having the garage sale just gets more of an un-cluttered house and more room to buy new books.  What about all the trading of titles that goes on?  I have several friends that I used to trade books with before we all got addicted to our e-readers.  There’s no more “Dude!  You have to read this one.  I’ll drop it off tomorrow!”  Now, it is all “Here is the link!”

    I don’t have the right answers.  I just know that the library’s book budget has taken a beating in the financial crisis.  Now, only 26 licenses per title seems ridiculous.

  14. 14
    Ken Houghton says:

    I was thinking more of what a sexy mouthguard looks like, but SonomaLass beat me to it, so to the subject at hand.

    The closest branch I have of the NYPL is Columbus.  Before then, most of my non-Main/SIBL/PA browsing was done at that branch between the subway and 560 Lex (a great branch, btw).

    Both branches have LARGE collections of paperbacks that are—let us be nice—well-read. If the NYPL were still tracking books with individual cards, I would give odds that many of the Belva Plains and Nora Robertses and Judith Tarrs and Barbara Cartlands have been checked out much more than 26 times.

    So we have another advantage (besides the exercise one) to traditional books—HarperCollins doesn’t believe they expire so soon.

  15. 15
    Nicole says:

    This makes no sense.  Trying to gouge under-funded libraries to buy extra licences is not the way to make a profit.  Libraries make a one and done purchase even with print (barring a book being mishandled and requiring total replacement).  This sounds like the bright idea of greedy executive who has no idea of library budgets.  The real area to increase profits is in lowering the price point and thus encouraging e-readers who buy their books to make more impulse buys.  I don’t even have an MBA and I can figure this out.

  16. 16
    sadiegrrrl says:

    wow, this is a slap in the face to libraries that are struggling just to maintain basic services at this point!

    i completely second library addict’s statement and i would also add that harpercollins should factor in that ebooks are already a difficult sell for a lot of libraries, not all e-readers are compatible (the kindle doesn’t play well with overdrive) and if harpercollins wants to make their books relevant they shouldn’t be enforcing arbitrary limits.  if i ever have a chance to buy ebooks for my collection i will have to think very hard about whether it is worth spending part of my extremely limited budget to get harpercollins’ books knowing that if they’re too popular i will have to spend more money to buy a new digital copy before i would even think to replace the print copy.

    *runs off to retrieve her own super unsexy bite guard*

    p.s. apologies if this comment is at all loopy, i’m all hopped up on antibiotics and over the counter meds to try and fight a sinus infection and things are a little spinny.

  17. 17
    Laura says:

    /start sarcasm

    Yes, here’s a truly inspired idea! Let’s make sure that no one can read our books! Let’s make sure we screw the libraries over because they don’t do anything for us! We are going to make so much money!

    /end sarcasm

    When there is no money to pay for something, the license does not get renewed. When the license does not get renewed, you lose readers because your books are not available. When your books are not available, patrons become upset. Librarians then explain the situation and most likely, you lose money from those library patrons for looking like greedy

    hats. I will be one of them.

    When you treat the libraries like diseased lepers, you lose. Period.

    But you look all literary and elite and


  18. 18

    Count me as another one who worked at a library nursing the mmpbs through FAR more than 26 lendings. Heck, we had books – and not a few! – in the stacks that were from 1880, with gummed checkout records listing patrons for a hundred years.

    HC is also completely discounting how online patrons check out books. Since I can’t browse or flip through OverDrive’s books, I often check out 50 a day, ten at a time, and immediately “return” virtually all of them. It’s the digital equivalent of pulling them off the shelf and reading the back cover, then setting it back in its place. If that counts as one check-out, HC books are going to get burned through in a couple of days.

    My personal opinion is that their magic number 26 has exactly zero to do with what happens to real library books and exactly everything to do with how many checkouts they see OverDrive typically recording on one of their books. I would guess they’re pushing for at least a 2x purchase over the useful circulating life of the book.

  19. 19
    jayhjay says:

    Wow this pisses me off! Such greed!  The poor libraries are already struggling, now we are forces these organization (who do a true public service) to reach into their already shallow pockets to cough up more funds?  Argh

  20. 20
    Sara Ramsey says:

    I completely disagree with HarperCollins’ decision to limit libraries to only 26 checkout – but I’m equally alarmed by their request for user data from the libraries. That seems even more onerous for libraries than the 26-checkout rule – how much paperwork would go into that, and would the library even be able to share data legally (or ethically)? That seems like a total nightmare clause that would force libraries to reconsider ebooks even more than the 26-checkout rule.

    However, at least the fact that readers have no idea what the different corporations/imprints are works in HarperCollins’ favor – while there’s been a lot of talk about imprints branding themselves better, at least in this case it’s good for them that readers (outside the writing/library community) don’t have a clue. After all, it’s hard to organize a boycott of a publisher if you have to explain to the boycotters exactly who they’re supposed to be boycotting :)

  21. 21
    Karen S. says:

    Okay, the idea that 26 checkouts is the “average” lifespan of a book is total bs.  I work for the branches of a small-city library system and one of my recent projects was checking to see if some of the copies of fiction titles at a larger branch could be replaced with those at a smaller branch.  Most of the copies that needed replacing because of actual structural deterioration of the book had gone out about 80+times (if not more—quite a few had gone out 100+times and weren’t too bad).  If a book hadn’t gone out of the larger branch more than 40-50 times, I usually didn’t bother checking the condition.

    They have to be including the books that have damage from something other than normal use—the ones that have been dropped in the bathtub, torn apart by the dog, etc.

    I think, if anything, this will simply mean that HarperCollins’ ebooks won’t be purchased as often by libraries.  I was about to say “unless it’s a very popular item” but then that’s kind of a catch-22; if they buy the really popular items, then the license will expire all the sooner.

  22. 22
    Jennifer says:

    This makes me want to become a pirate, offering up all of HarperCollins ebooks that I own on the darknet. How would someone go about doing that?

  23. 23
    Pam says:

    What really pisses me off is that as a child, my parents would not buy me books. Why waste money on that when there is a library full of them and the card is free!? So how many young readers are they going to be capping off when the library budget is so fucking thin they can barely buy books anyway, much less continually renew a digital license? The people in NYC with the 1979 print publishing mentality need to take that early retirement plan and let some people in who understand what the customer wants.

  24. 24
    Jennifer Armintrout says:

    I cannot understand why anyone in publishing would want to make libraries mad at them.

  25. 25
    Sarah W says:

    Libraries do not allow patrons to check out books if they don’t comply with residency or tax-payer requirements—-reciprocities are sanctioned, but card numbers are specific to the home library, and Overdrive already uses those numbers to verify patron eligibility.  Anything more would be redundant and petty.

    This aside, libraries don’t give out patron information without a warrant—and many librarians have gone to jail on obstruction and contempt charges rather than comply with those warrants.  The ALA Code of Ethics forbids the disclosure of patron information.  Period.

    HarperCollins can suck it.

  26. 26
    Phyl says:

    Overdrive released their free app just 3 or 4 days ago. After downloading it Wednesday night I started browsing my public library’s very small, but surprisingly broad, collection of digital romance. I couldn’t find anything that didn’t have a hold on it. Most books only had 1-3 holds on them. SEP’s Call Me Irresistible had over 30 holds on it. To compare, my library has 67 copies of that book in paper with over 140 holds on it. Ebooks are still a drop in the bucket and HC is not going to profit from this. I live in Ohio where (for now) we still fund libraries. But we have an idiot for governor, so I don’t expect the funding to continue.

  27. 27

    This is just wrong on so many levels.  What’s up with the patron info?  Come on!  And where the heck did 26 come from?  I can maybe see their point after thousands of check outs but 26? Seriously what other factors were they considering because I don’t know if I’ve seen any library book so trashed after 26 check outs that they had to order a new copy to replace it.

  28. 28
    Ruth says:

    I’m guessing 26 came from a 2-week average lending period over 52 weeks. That’s the only number that 26 plugs into well, anyway.

    So if that’s what they used to come up with this, then what they’re saying is they only expect a very popular physical library book (the kind that gets checked out/reserved constantly and is always in motion…like Twilight was) to last a year. And that’s ridiculous. While well-read bestsellers do get beat up faster, none of the public libraries I worked at had a problem with constantly having to replace them.

  29. 29
    John Crutcher says:

    I think it may be premature to say that Harper is requiring access to patron information. I can think of several scenarios where Harper’s concerns about card issuance policies and qualification of patrons could be adressed without providing them one whit of information about specific patrons.

    And, while I understand the heat about this change in their policies (and whether 26 is at all a reasonable limitation), I think we all be howling about the fact that neithr Simon &Schuster; or Macmillan are willing to provide ANY of their ebooks to libraries under ANY condition. Harper looks less outrageous next to them.

  30. 30
    Limecello says:

    I’ve been tweeting about this with others – :X skimmed what you wrote – read the Library Journal article… 26 definitely won’t work. I utilize my library’s e-collection and have been patron number 22, or higher on a hold list, for a pre-release title. And then people put the book on hold after me. That means there’s a high probability of people not even getting the book/being part of the list before the book is even out in the open. And I can’t see the library just buying more copies over and over.
    This makes me so sad, and so disappointed. As well as frustrated.

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