Previous to the policy change, after a library purchased a title (e.g. The Hobbit), the library owned the digital copy and it was available to as many patrons as wished to read it. Then HarperCollins placed a limit on the number of times a license could be issued by the third party lending company (i.e. OverDrive) to a public library. This cut-off was set at 26 circulations for each title before it expired. This means that after 26 people checked out the ebook the library must re-purchase the title from Overdrive.
Honestly, I keep going back and forth on this issue; I can see both sides and had a difficult time making a definitive decision on my position. However, I think that HarperCollins was justified in changing its policy on eBook circulation and possibly made the best decision they could at this time.
In the “Open Letter to Librarians”, HarperCollins stated that the change came after much discussion with distributors, librarians, and conference attendees. Their research led them to believe that if they continued with the established policy on eBook circulation, it would cause significant discord in the eBook industry. The letter says, it would lead to damage to the “growing eBook channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.” The current situation with eBooks, eReaders, and their growth is somewhat out of the control of individual publishers, but HarperCollins is attempting to “balance… the needs of libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers” (Marwell, 2011).
Their biggest argument, in my opinion, for the decision deals with the nature of digital versus physical media. Digital content is not likely to ever be lost or damaged, making its lifespan practically limitless. (note: technology does change and a new format is required.) Physical books, on the other hand, can be easily lost or damaged. Therefore when a library purchases a copy of a book, its shelf life is limited based on the patrons’ treatment of the book. In theory the first person to check the book out could lose it, and the library would have to acquire another copy. This is not the case with most books and they last longer. An eBook, however, cannot be lost.
In my opinion, it is realistic for HarperCollins to evaluate their procedures and enforce new policy; they are a business, and must establish a model that works for them and reduce money loss. When setting the 26 cap, HarperCollins took these factors into account. They considered the average lifespan of a book, by looking at the wear and tear, lending periods, and average loss rate of print copies. (Hadro, 2011). HarperCollins reported that a 26-loan cap, taking into account an average 2-week lending period, would last approximately a year for the most in demand best-sellers. The licence should last significantly longer for other titles, not so highly popular. And the prediction is that the price of a new hardcover eBook equivalent will reduce after a year or so when the library must re-purchase a license (Marwell, 2011).
Finally, I think we should consider the alternatives. Action was needed, but what could HarperCollins have done differently? Would another solution have been better for libraries, or would it have been even more detrimental? Instead of setting a circulation limit, Random House tripled the price of eBooks. Librarians have responded saying they will likely be able to purchase far fewer titles, significantly narrowing the selection available to patrons (Kelley, 2012).
In my opinion this solution is not as effective or cost-efficient for libraries. Although the 26-cap requires the library to spend more on the book after 26 loans, not every book will reach this limit in a year’s time. Only the most popular books will cost the library a significant amount more. While with Random House’s model, every book will cost more for the library whether it is popular with the patrons or not. One advantage is that the library can evaluate a book’s popularity when deciding if they wish to obtain another license after the initial 26 loan period.
Since the new policy went into effect, some libraries (although they were extremely opposed at first) have said that they “prefer a HarperCollins model over no availability of titles” and “are a little bit more understanding of their loan cap, even if we still are not sure we agree with the number 26, but we understand there may need to be some caps so [it’s more fair] to authors and publishers” (Kelley, 2012).
Hadro, J. (2011, February 25). HarperCollins puts 26 load cap on ebook circulations. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2011/02/technology/ebooks/harpercollins-puts-26-loan-cap-on-ebook-circulations/
Kelley, M. (2012, March 2). Librarians feel sticker shock as price for Random House books rises as much as 300 percent. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2012/03/ebooks/librarians-feel-sticker-shock-as-price-for-random-house-ebooks-rise-as-much-as-300-percent/
Kelley, M. (2012, February 17). One year later, HarperCollins sticking to 26-loan cap, and some librarians rethink opposition. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2012/02/ebooks/one-year-later-harpercollins-sticking-to-26-loan-cap-and-some-librarians-rethink-opposition/
Marwell, J. (2011, March 1). Open Letter to Librarians. Retrieved from http://harperlibrary.typepad.com/my_weblog/2011/03/open-letter-to-librarians.html