Beyond 26 Checkouts

On Monday, I got an email from Carol Scott at Change.org telling me that they were happy with how the HarperCollins petition was going and were going to send it out to a larger segment of the website’s membership. Ok, cool!, I thought, closing up my phone and putting it back into my pocket. At the time, I was setting up for the New Jersey Library Association conference and the signature count was around 3,000. Later that afternoon, I got a text message from a friend. 

“What’s going on with your petition?” “Why do you ask?” “It’s jumped from 3,000 to 4,200 in like an hour. I just refreshed it and it went up another couple hundred.”

Then I started checking it from my phone. Over the course of two days, it went from 3,000 to 50,000. Whoa. As of the time I am writing this, it has 63,525. Library Journal wrote an article about it the other day for which I was interviewed. There’s one quote I gave that I’d like to highlight.

"The long term goal is to have authors, publishers, and libraries come together and talk about ebook circulation and lending models that make sense in a digital age."

Which brings me to the purpose of this post.

While the outpouring of support for the petition is incredible and much appreciated, there is still a matter of finding better eBook lending models that work for both authors, publishers, and libraries. I’d rather not have this petition be completely perceived as a finger wagging at HarperCollins, but as a conversation starter for other eBook lending models. I would not want the dialogue to entirely consist of reactions to publisher trial-and-error introductions of new formulas, but a collaboration between a business industry and a public institution with mutual interests.

In earlier statements, HarperCollins has called the 26 eBook checkout limit an experiment. In that case, I would like to propose additional experiments in eBook lending models. This is not limited to just HarperCollins, but a call to every publisher who allows libraries to lend eBooks to try something new.

If I was to advocate for any kind of experimental lending model, it would be around the idea of multiple simultaneous borrowers. I’ll outline my reasoning and rationale as I see it below.

First, and it has been said in many places, eBooks are computer files. They embody the digital notion of abundance. The idea of expiration or artificial scarcity is an affront to the global information network that has been built around computer files. It is a quality of the medium that should be used to its advantage, not as something to be contained. The question should be not be “How can we limit the very thing that makes it extraordinarily flexible and unique?”, but “How can we use this to get it to as many people as possible while making money?”

Second, the ability for lending to multiple simultaneous borrowers should be considered in the light of immediate book release market share. In stealing a sentiment from Seth Godin, the book itself is not as important as the conversation around it. People talk about what the book makes them feel, how they relate to the content within, and the desire to share these aspects with others. With the rise of social networks and acquaintance relations on them, that kind of sharing goes beyond the immediate family and friends. It becomes a crowd experience, one in which people will seek out other find people who have read the same book. 

In other words, what I am suggesting is that by allowing multiple simultaneous borrowers, a book can potentially control social network conversations during those first crucial weeks when it hits the market. It could generate more reviews and buzz on sites like LibraryThing, GoodReads, Shelfari, and Amazon. There will be more check-ins on social sites like GetGlue which feed into bigger sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s the power of numbers idea when a person sees that a large number of their personal network talking, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, GetGlueing, and reviewing a book at the same time. Certainly some have purchased the book while others have borrowed it, but their combined social media output has marketing value. It’s an advertising campaign that money can’t buy when consumers are the ones talking about their product of their own accord. This word of mouth marketing could and should be nurtured through more permissive lending models.

Third, in making multiple simultaneous copies available to libraries, I would propose that it could have a curbing effect on piracy. By providing an easier alternate route to published content, it could bring people with certain types of pirating behaviors (e.g. lack of convenience, too high a price point) into a legitimate system. In bringing those people into the legal side of the equation, it strikes a blow against existing pirates at their revenue sources (from pirating works and advertising). Also, it could translate into less money being spent fighting piracy overall (which, as noted in this article, could prove to be a substantial and costly endeavor to the detriment of authors). Furthermore, there are better datasets to be gained from their inclusion in overall usage statistics. That translates into better planning practices for both the publisher and the library (in other words, more money saved through efficiencies).

While some may see this as a type of capitulation to piracy, I completely beg to differ. I think it’s a bargain to expend a little money subsidizing this kind of lending model at the front end rather than chasing down people downloading illegally on the back end. (As the RIAA can tell you, courts aren’t cheap.) There is a public goodwill value to be considered (I don’t know how it could be quantified or calculated), there are benefits to both publisher and library in engaging in this arrangement, and the fact of the matter is that brand new markets like eBooks need a new and radical approach in the new sharing culture. A little work on the front end here could save a lot of headaches later on.

Fourth, this is a very unoriginal thought, but the very nature of eBooks allows for tiered purchasing models. Whether it is ‘per use’ or ‘x simultaneous borrowers’, it’s just a matter of figuring out the right pricing. It can and should be more expensive than a physical book because it does more than a physical book. Tiered models embrace the flexibility and portability of the eBook as a computer file.

The largest and more persistent objection to simultaneous borrowers is the notion that it undermines the eBook market. I call shenanigans on that. The people who come to the library as it is now are the ones who are not purchasing first edition hardcover books. Even if it did attract eReader device owners who regularly purchased content, they’d have to register with their library to do so (not quite the same as click and buy, I assure you). And if there was still concern about the potential impact on sales, there is a relatively simple mechanism can be put into place: limit the number of times it can be borrowed in a calendar year. For example, if someone can borrow an eBook only twice in a calendar year, they get four weeks to read it (on the basis of a two week loan). After that, they either go without or buy it. This should assuage the fear of people permanently borrowing material while making it available to them in the short and immediate term. (Perhaps longer borrowing periods can be determined over time, especially in other settings like high school or college.) The eBook market will continue onwards and library lending does not pose a viable threat to it.

In essence, I believe there is a financial decision here: one could allow for a more permissive library lending system in which, yes, there will be lost sales but less piracy and greater market penetration OR a publisher can continue to limit lending, discourage digital collections that put their eBooks into the hands of readers and drive the social sharing marketplace, and spend money to track down and fight pirates both professional and casual. There is no perfect system for lending eBooks nor will there ever be one, but that fact should not stop experiments towards progress from occurring.

So, let the other experiments begin.

5 thoughts on “Beyond 26 Checkouts

  1. Pingback: E-books and Harper Collins « Sarah Kelly Wright

  2. I think a tiered model could work marvelously for large libraries and consortia. In Iowa, we have two consortia that between them provide download audio and ebooks to many libraries and their patrons. With scale like this, there’s no reason why ebooks couldn’t follow a very hard-copyish model. Say the library purchased 5 copies of the ebook at market value, which ought to be something very close to what they would pay for hard copy. All the copies would come with no limit to the number of times they can circulate, but two would expire after a year, a third after 18 months, the fourth after 24 months, and the 5th would never expire, but remain a permanent part of the collection. This would address the need for both multiple copies early, and permanence of ownership. It would also be fairly similar to what happens to hard copy books. After a couple of years, when the buzz is over, most libraries have weeded down most titles to one copy, through a combination of attrition through loss and damage and elective weeding.

    These numbers are not set in stone. The bundle could include more or fewer than 5 copies, and the duration of their availability could be tweaked, but such a system would more accurately compensate the author on a per-reader basis, as well as assure the author a permanent place in library collections, such a valuable asset for acquiring new fans down the line.

    Only the smallest libraries could protest about having to buy multi-copy bundles, but the smallest libraries are already joining consortia in huge numbers, so that problem will probably take care of itself.

  3. What about this: each library user who borrows the e-book from the library would be required to pay a small fee (say 50 cents – that’s actually about 1/26 of the price of an average e-book) that would be collected by the library and sent directly to the publisher. In this way, the publisher gets the full price of the e-book with every 26 library users who borrow it. The fee would have to be so small that it would not pose a problem for library users. Creating a system for implementing this in the libraries should be the responsibility of the publishers (after all, it’s their profits that we are talking about), so that this does not create additional burden for the libraries.

  4. Interesting post, and thanks for engaging more in the library space about this problem. This was recently an IMLS Up|Next conversation topic, and my analysis and proposal for dealing with this problem can be found posted at

    The law we have represents an obsolete and unsustainable business model in the face of the public policy intent of promoting development and wide distribution of creative works. Instituting a statutory royalty pool will take a shift in bureaucratic infrastructure, but it’s doable, should prove fair to artists and copyright owners, would be seamless & invisible to consumers/library and museum patrons, and ultimately in the best interests of the publishing/recording industries, artists, and taxpayers thus to institute a scheme that better reflects digital reality.

  5. Interesting post, and thanks for engaging more in the library space about this problem. This was recently an IMLS Up|Next conversation topic, and my analysis and proposal for dealing with this problem can be found posted here.

    The law we have represents an obsolete and unsustainable business model in the face of the public policy intent of promoting development and wide distribution of creative works. Instituting a statutory royalty pool will take a shift in bureaucratic infrastructure, but it’s doable, should prove fair to artists and copyright owners, would be seamless & invisible to consumers/library and museum patrons, and ultimately in the best interests of the publishing/recording industries, artists, and taxpayers thus to institute a scheme that better reflects digital reality.

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