The Publisher of Tolkien Has Taken a Business Lesson from Sauron

If there is a crime here, it is that HarperCollins is guilty of attempted infanticide by their move to strangle ebook library lending in its cradle. Granted, it is the only publisher to ask for such restrictions but I’m certain the other ones are watching the outcome to this controversy very closely. Otherwise, this whole situation really turns into something out of The Godfather; it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

The “just business” aspect is the key here, the thing I believe that people are forgetting in their rush to lament a mere easily reversible announcement. HarperCollins is a publishing business where they have owners (News Corporation, in this case) to answer to for profitability. As much as one would like to romanticize publishing, at the end of the day the amount of money made has to be greater than the amount of money spent. In moving to limit ebook circulations in order to compel libraries to buy new licenses as well as check up on who is borrowing their books (something we do anyway, but whatever), they are carving out their own path to the ebook library market and working towards what they consider to be in their best business interests. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

I don’t think I’m alone in this viewpoint, but I think librarians (and especially public librarians) forget that do have power in a situation like this. It’s easily overlooked but extraordinarily simple: if it’s not a good deal, don’t buy it. This absurd and juvenile notion that we have to provide everything our patrons could possibly ask for is folly and a recipe for making extremely bad business decisions of our own. In not buying products from a publisher, database provider, or other library vendor, we are voting with our money. Just don’t buy it!

We have a fiduciary duty to spend the money libraries are given in the best interests of the communities that we serve.  I think the only thing that pisses off a taxpayer more than being taxed is the idea that their money is being spent unwisely. As librarians, we pride ourselves on the Return of Investment (ROI) that libraries generate for their communities; we even go so far as to use it in our advocacy materials. Why ruin it with a bad deal that is not in our favor, not in our patrons favor, ruining a perfectly good ROI, and is, well, just plain stupid?

This goes beyond buying HarperCollins material through Overdrive. When will the fear of being caught spending money foolishly override the fear that we are not being ‘good’ librarians if we don’t provide every kind of service or material possible? Sometimes, there are deals that we just need to walk away from. This is one of those times. Because the last thing I want to hear is the people who go forward and eat this crap sandwich is lamenting how awful the taste is.

No thanks. I’m a crap free diet.

P.S. I’ve written about something like this before; it was happening in the UK.

More reading on this:

Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back (Librarian by Day)

The Publisher That Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (theanalogdivide)

Friday Alert: HarperCollins in cagemathc with Macmillan to see who can alienate readers better (Dear Author)

HarperCollins Seeks to Limit Digital Lending, Access Patron Data, Generally Piss Off Readers (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books)

Congratulations HarperCollins – you just guaranteed Amazon and Kindle will win the eBook & eReader war (Literary Sluts)

HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Circulations (Library Journal)

On eating your corn seed (Courtney Milan)

And for good measure read this:

OverDrive and the Library eBook Convenience Paradox (Go to Hellman)

HarperCollins to Libraries: we will nuke your ebooks after 26 checkouts (BoingBoing)

Library eBook Revolution, Begin (Librarian in Black)

Let’s Play Rent-A-Book! (David Lee King)

Update update: Read this brilliant take.

HarperCollins and the Suspension of eBook Disbelief (Go To Hellman)


21 thoughts on “The Publisher of Tolkien Has Taken a Business Lesson from Sauron

  1. “When will the fear of being caught spending money foolishly override the fear that we are not being ‘good’ librarians if we don’t provide every kind of service or material possible?”

    (Off-topic) That’s how I feel about Freegal! Is it really a good practice to buy music for our patrons?

    As to this HarperCollins business…it’s a mess. Everyone else has explained the situation better than I could, but I think Sarah Houghton-Jan ( made a great point about copyright. That’s the biggest issue — It’s time for some copyright changes. However, librarians and publishers couldn’t come to an agreement years ago over updating the CONTU guidelines so what are the chances we’ll be able to agree now?

    • Beyond Freegal, I think that there are a bunch of other deals that libraries really shouldn’t blindly walk into (like some database deals, from what I’ve heard). In the rush to prove ourselves at times, the prudent action gets set aside.

      Sarah is and has been a big voice for a re-think on copyright. I don’t think we’ll agree at all, but we shouldn’t give up the ship either.

  2. Pingback: Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back | Librarian by Day

  3. We are an OverDrive System, and you are absolutely right. We must seriously reconsider whether this product is worth purchasing with a 26 circ limit per title for a 17-member federated system. I have been pushing for our System to upload a batch of edited and test-loaded MARC records (generously offered up by a Colorado library consortium) for the top 500 Project Gutenberg ebook classics. While no substitute for the popular titles offered by OverDrive, at least there is no bad aftertaste associated with the process. And at least we are claiming some ownership in our catalog of ebooks–wherever they exist.

  4. Amen! There are times when we need to get over our uber-service ethic. “Oh, if I don’t purchase this database then our patrons won’t get the resources they need…blah blah.” We’re librarians, dammit it, we can find equitable information elsewhere!

    Seriously, though. In most cases, libraries are the primary market for these vendors. If we choose (as a group) not to put up with their crap, then we have the ability to change their pricing. The problem is, we can rarely put up a unified front.

    Hm. There is something ALA could do for us. Maybe ALA should set aside the Patriot Act for a moment (come on, do you really think the US Gov’t cares what ALA thinks about its policies?) and focus all their attention on the e-publishing industry. Again, we are a primary market and money talks. It’s a fight we could actually win.

    Just sayin’. Sorry if I’m a bit snarkier than usual. It’s late and I have MLIS homework due in the morning 😉

    • We already find them equitable service elsewhere. It’s called ILL. It’s called, well, whatever that article service is. You could use that budget line to pay for those things instead of giving it to a bad deal. Yes, people have to wait, but the notion that we have to be instant gratification is nice but slightly insane and unreasonable.

      I think people can get on board for this, it’s just a matter of communication and action.

  5. Some of my admins have said off the record that we are in too deep with Overdrive to pull out now. We would loose access to content that our patrons have come too rely on and we’ve already paid a ton for. At some point though the contract will be up. The question will be if there are any other vendors to fill the void.

    HUGE THIRD RAIL ALERT: Copyright is the key issue. If not only the debate, but practice of copyright, shifts progressively (and I think it should) then materials will be increasingly easy to get, and patrons won’t need a library or vendor or any other third party besides an ISP get what they want. Progress on the copyright front greatly reduces the role of the public library as content provider. Read between the lines on that.

    Related: how long before publishers learn book DRM can be broken and ignored just as easy as music DRM?

  6. Pingback: Sorry…I’m a bad librarian. | Life:Merging

  7. As an academic librarian and someone who does not own an e-reader yet, I’m not really familiar with Overdrive. Do they just provide the content, like an aggregator database, or are they a traditional vendor where libraries buy what they want from them?

    At our library, we have a number of e-book vendors, one, from Proquest, Safari Tech Books, we just get whatever it is they have to offer. Another, EBL, provides us a with a patron-driven acquisition model. EBL puts their entire catalog into our OPAC. When patrons click on the title and browse through it online, i think 3 times, then we’ve purchased the book and it can be downloaded to an e-reader, printed out, or whatever. I’m pretty sure that there are unlimited “checkouts” too. Once we’ve purchased the book, as many people as they want can view it, download it, print it, etc. at the same time. That, of course, could be adjusted for public libraries, where hundreds, maybe even thousands of people might want to read “Twilight”, while in our academic library, there’s might be one person who wants to read “Fiduciary Finance Investment Funds and the Crisis in Financial Markets.

    Are there any patron-driven acquisition models for public libraries?

  8. Pingback: Discriminating Against Libraries, 26 eBook Circs at a Time

  9. I’ve always wondered about the seemingly monopolizing aspect of Overdrive where its the only large player to offer copyrighted new material. Of course, there’s open source and public domain material available.
    Here’s some thoughts I had –

    Amazon already has proven they can and will remove titles from your kindle. And, if I’m not mistaken, you never truly own your purchase with kindle, its a two year window?

    HarperCollins (and all other publishers) should watch the Neil Gaiman video on piracy. And then watch the Margaret Atwood video about the author’s piece of the pie and concerns of the primary source.

    Overdrive allows three three checkout windows for ebook downloads; 5, 14, or 21 days. If you’re a fast reader and opt for the 5 day window, think how fast a short page-burner title will need to be re-licensed. Libraries will have to re-license that title far quicker then every year.

    Publisher’s will also see the light and publish lighter, shorter novels – Bridges of Madison County; The Shack. Goodbye to War and Peace.

  10. Pingback: The Publisher of Tolkien Has Taken a Business Lesson from Sauron | The Digital Reader

  11. Pingback: Limits on library e-books stir controversy

  12. Pingback: CBS Bibliotek Blog – Innovation & Ny Viden » Blog Archive » En uge med e-bøger i fokus

  13. Pingback: Subjects Matter! » Blog Archive » E books good for 26 reads, then: *Tilt* GAME OVER!

  14. Pingback: Open Thread Thursday: Sparta Edition « Agnostic, Maybe

  15. Pingback: “Sometimes I feel like we set ourselves up to fail.” | Library Renewal

  16. Pingback: The Language of the Deal | Library Renewal

  17. Pingback: Blogging about Professional Blogs: Agnostic, Maybe and Librarian in Black | All Booked Up

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s