July 21, 2017

HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap 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 [emphasis in original]:

[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. As noted in the letter, the terms will not be specific to OverDrive, and will likewise apply to “all eBook vendors or distributors offering this publisher’s titles for library lending.” The new terms will not be retroactive, and will apply only to new titles. More details on the new terms are set to be announced next week. If a lending period is two weeks, the 26 circulation limit is likely to equal roughly one year of use for a popular title. For a three-week lending period, that stretches to a year and a half. For librarians—many of whom are already frustrated with ebooks lending policies and user interface issues—further license restrictions seem to come at a particularly bad time, given strained budgets nationwide. It may also disproportionately affect libraries that set shorter loan periods for ebook circulation. While HarperCollins is the first major publisher to amend the terms of loan for its titles, two other members of the publishing “big six”—Macmillan and Simon & Schuster—still do not allow ebooks to be circulated in libraries, much to the consternation of librarians. Likewise, many in the profession have pointed out publishers are overlooking the value added by librarians in promoting books and fostering book culture, a role detailed by librarian Katie Dunneback at the recent Tools of Change for Publishing conference. Sarah Houghton-Jan, Assistant Director for the San Rafael Public Library, CA, and a blogger who has long voiced dissatisfaction with the ebook status quo, responded to the news:

Consumer market eBook vendors like Barnes & Noble and Amazon don’t let publishers get away with the amount of nonsense that we get stuck with through library eBook vendors. I fault the publishers for not realizing what a huge mistake they are making by not realizing that new formats are opportunities–not threats to be quashed. I fault the library eBook vendors for not standing firm and saying “no” to asinine demands. And I fault the library profession for, to date, not standing up for the rights of our users. Our job is to fight for the user, and we have done a poor job of doing that during the digital content surge.

By contrast, Christopher Platt, Acting Director, Collections and Circulating Operations, The New York Public Library, said that he could see the move as “a great first step and an interesting development.” Nevertheless, he said he would prefer an industry-wide solution rather than deals unique to a specific publisher. “We naturally gravitate to publishers that are easy to work with.”

Additional publisher anxieties

The OverDrive letter also spells out concerns from publishers over geographic and territorial rights, and lending practices tied to card issuance, seemingly a sign of companies new to dealing with libraries in terms of electronic content (database publishers have long dealt in FTE or residents served). OverDrive likewise says publishers are concerned about the size of consortia and shared collections, and “seek to ensure that sufficient copies of their content are being licensed to service demand of the library’s service area, while at the same time balance the interests of publisher’s retail partners who are focused on unit sales.” (Also see: “HarperCollins, OverDrive Respond as 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Debate Heats Up“)

Josh Hadro About Josh Hadro

Josh Hadro (@hadro on Twitter) is the former Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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