As pretty much everyone in the library and publishing world now knows, HarperCollins recently instituted a new access model for sales of its ebooks to libraries: a library ebook from HC can now only be “checked out” 26 times before the access license expires and must be repurchased.
What this amounts to is a change of model and an increase in price: where once the library would purchase an HC ebook once and lend it an unlimited number of times, the library now effectively subscribes to the book, and the subscription must be renewed after a certain number of circulations, making popular books more expensive for a library to keep in its collection than less-popular ones.
What to make of this change? Librarians are outraged, of course, and have expressed their concern with various degrees of heat. Karen Schneider, blogging at FreeRangeLibrarian, implicitly characterized the new policy as an attack on readers’ rights and on the written word itself. Kate Sheehan, at Loose Cannon Librarian, discussed the issue in a somewhat more nuanced way. There are calls for a boycott: librarians Brett Bonfield and Gabriel Farrell quickly established a one-page website called BoycottHarperCollins.com, while Andy Woodworth, a library blogger at Agnostic, Maybe helpfully proposes five different levels of protest that readers can choose depending on their comfort level; these range from “Boycott HarperCollins entirely” to “Remove HarperCollins titles from book displays and recommended reading list or pamphlets.” And some local boycotts are actually in place: Library Journal reports that “the Central/Western Massachusetts Automated Resource Sharing consortium (C/W Mars) which serves 155 libraries, decided last week to suspend, effective [March 7], the purchase of any new HarperCollins titles for the digital catalog.” Some other consortia and cooperatives have taken similar steps.
How has HarperCollins responded to the uproar? Awkwardly. In a remarkably tone-deaf “open letter to librarians” , HarperCollins explained that “our prior e-book policy for libraries dates back almost 10 years to a time when the number of e-book readers was too small to measure,” and pointed out that with e-book readers on track to number 40 million by the end of this year, the ten-year-old model needed a rethink.
Fair enough. But HarperCollins then makes a very typical mistake, one that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read a public statement from a journal publisher defending a massive price increase: “We are looking,” HarperCollins sniffs, “to balance the mission and needs of libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers, so that the library channel can thrive alongside the growing e-book retail channel.” So, in other words: HC is drastically raising the cost of ongoing access to its e-book list so that libraries can “thrive.” Of course — it’s for our own good! How silly of us not to see it that way to begin with.
HarperCollins apparently believes that limiting the number of uses per e-book purchase is going to increase library purchases of high-demand titles, and they may be right. But if HarperCollins is really concerned about the welfare of authors, then it needs to be looking at sales of its whole list, not just its bestsellers. Nicholas Jackson, in a piece at TheAtlantic.com, quotes Bonfield and Farrell as predicting that HC’s new policy could, in fact, lead libraries to buy more e-copies of popular titles—but they point out that there is also “a good chance that libraries will spend the same amount on e-books they are already spending but offer less variety because they would have to buy more copies of the most popular items.”
That’s a very good point. Readers have little brand loyalty when it comes to publishers; we love authors, not imprints. (Try to imagine someone saying ”Oh honey, if you’re going to the library, would you pick up a HarperCollins book for me?”) So if a library has to buy fewer ebooks because of an HC price hike, that dip in sales is just as likely to hurt the HarperCollins list as any other publisher’s. In other words, a library that is forced to buy a bestselling HC ebook three times may well forego the purchase of two other unique HarperCollins titles—not in a spirit of boycott, but simply because the money for those extra purchases has to come from somewhere.
On the other hand, take that logic too far and it simply becomes an argument for an infinite regress of price; any price could theoretically be high enough to cannibalize sales of other products.
So what’s the correct response? If I could answer that definitively, I’d be making a lot more money as a consultant than I’m currently making as a librarian. But I think it’s safe to say two things:
- As I argued in my last Scholarly Kitchen posting, the marketplace rewards pricing practices that are sustainable, regardless of whether or not they’re “fair.” A publisher that tries to defend demonstrably unsustainable price increases by appeals to fairness (or, more cynically, the Greater Good) is missing the point, and will likely end up undermining its own market strength. The library world’s response to HarperCollins’s proposed model strongly suggests (though does not prove) the unsustainability of that model.
- A boycott may make one feel righteous, but it’s a very blunt instrument of protest. If HarperCollins’s books were printed by seven-year-old children in a sweatshop, then a brand-wide boycott might make moral sense. But as a response to a price increase in one subcategory of the publisher’s product line, a boycott is perhaps a bit lacking in nuance. It seems to me that ceasing to buy the product that is overpriced while continuing to buy other HC products that are priced acceptably would serve the same goal in two ways: by both punishing the unacceptable model and rewarding the acceptable one.
What will happen next? I suspect that HarperCollins will find a way to surrender partially and with as little loss of face as can still be managed. I also suspect that while the library world is celebrating its victory, HarperCollins will figure out some other way to make the same amount of money. If they’re smart, they will also have learned something about how and how not to respond to an angry customer base.