In HarperCollins vs. Librarians, No One Wins

You may have heard about the rift between HarperCollins and the nation’s librarians. HarperCollins wants to limit the number of users of e-books in libraries, in effect forcing the libraries to re-purchase the book periodically. Librarians, who have watched public funding diminish substantially in recent years, are understandably upset and oppose the plan.

I admit I’m torn. As an author, I want and expect to be paid for the work I produce. Unless you are James Patterson or Sue Grafton, a traditionally published book isn’t going to make you rich, by any means. In fact, most writers are thrilled if their books make enough to earn back their advances and then some.

With the increasing popularity of e-books, which sell for much less, on average, than a printed copy, the question of reimbursement for a writer becomes more important. An e-book sells for $9.95 and the same hard-copy book sells for $24.95, so you can see why e-books are the fastest growing segment in book sales today. Publishers – and authors - hope to make up the difference in volume. At some point, if enough e-books sell, the publisher makes more money, and the author makes more in royalties.

But if a library buys an e-book at a reduced price, is it fair that the library gets to lend it out in perpetuity? With a hard-cover book, at some point it wears out and is replaced, though that may be years and years. HarperCollins wants to limit the number of times an e-book can be lent by libraries to 26, which they figure means the “book” will last about a year if it’s a popular title. After that, the library would have to re-purchase the e-book.

Not surprisingly, the American Library Association opposes this. I agree with them that this plan could make it difficult, if not impossible, for some libraries, particularly small ones, to begin or expand e-book collections. Libraries have been under a budget siege the past few years, and many have cut employees, services and the hours they are available to the public. The library in my hometown, Santa Barbara, is no longer open on Mondays, and has reduced hours on Sundays.

Libraries play a crucial role in our society and – honestly – are especially important for authors and publishers, too. Without libraries, readers would not discover new voices or old classics. Many children wouldn’t be exposed to literature and the joys of reading. A library is still one place where all the knowledge of the world is accessible to everyone. Yes, I know the Internet offers the same, but believe it or not, not everyone has access to the Internet.

So, we have to do what we can to support and help libraries continue to do their important work. I propose a compromise: Instead of 26 times, make the allowable number of lendings of e-books 100. It’s as arbitrary a number as 26, of course. But it would give the library a lengthier use, and still ensure that the book would have to be re-purchased at some point.

It’s not a perfect answer. I don’t think there is one. As publishers look for ways to capitalize on this new era of book publishing that includes increasing e-book sales and an exploding trend of self-publishing, it behooves them to remember that libraries may be as important to their ultimate goal (staying in business) as short-term profits.