28 February 2011

Percolating on Ebooks

I needed a couple days and a few cups of coffee to get my thoughts in order for this post.

I don't tend to write too directly about my work here on my blog. I fully admit that I am a librarian. Not one that you will find facing the general public, but one who sits in an office and works with librarians and library staff and supports the automated services they use. One of those services is OverDrive, and I have been out with colleagues training library staff over the last months as ebook lending has taken off. I have been in a lot of libraries, with lots of coffee to get me through. However, I am still a librarian, and when the news hit the internet airwaves about OverDrive having to start a new licensing model with "certain publishers," and the revelation that HarperCollins is that publisher, it has been easy to be swept into that virtual vitriol going on since Friday morning.

For those who may not know, as of the first week of March, any libraries that use OverDrive and purchase HarperCollins titles will be subject to a license of only 26 checkouts per title. This means that, like patrons who see their ebooks expire after two weeks, libraries will see the same thing happen after about one year. If we want the title again for more patrons, we will have to buy another copy.

It seems they arrived at this model by noting that many libraries have to replace items after a year of circulation. Which, most librarians will state, is hogwash. Oh sure, there are many books that need to be replaced due to wear and tear, loss, or otherwise degraded conditions, mostly bestsellers and mass market paperbacks. I have never spilled my coffee on an ebook. However, for each of those books there are probably a dozen on the shelf that are in decent condition, going from hand to hand for many years. Yet now we are to be forced to adopt a model where digital content has to be repurchased after a year?

If libraries are lucky, they will get a full year. One benefit of ebooks through OverDrive is that patrons can return them early if they are finished with them, which means that there will be several titles in the collection for which libraries will not be able to give their patrons a full year of access. In an extreme example, this could mean if every patron returned a book after 24 hours, libraries might only have a book for around 27 days.

Also within these terms will be some sort of guarantee that libraries are adhering to some type of geographic limits, which will mean that OverDrive will need to supply publishers with patron information. On top of that, the publisher is also getting leery of resource sharing by consortia and large library systems, and wants to ensure that those systems are not buying ebooks at the expense of print books.

So, there have been lots of words about this topic, from Librarian By Day (which is where I first saw the letter) to Library Journal (where Josh Hadro broke the news about the publisher being HarperCollins) to numerous other colleagues across Twitter such as Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (@smartbitches), Loose Cannon Librarian (@itsjustkate), theanalogdivide (@theanalogdivide), and many others, linked to stories or not. Just take a look on Twitter at the #hcod hashtag for all the talk.

While not all publishers have jumped on board with ebooks circulating in libraries at all (Macmillan and Simon & Schuster to name those parties), most have moved from a delay in publishing ebooks to a simultaneous launch of the digital format along with the print. To be part of a library network that can supply ebooks to our patrons is a good thing, but (as individual libraries do) we struggle with keeping up with demand and shrinking budgets. Pooling our resources, with libraries supplementing through the year, has been beneficial. Take away a consortium's ability to share resources, and individual libraries will be forced to buy only the titles highest in demand, limiting the range of the collection. Would you expect your library to only carry the New York Times Bestseller List titles and nothing else?

I have touted the benefits of OverDrive to library staff, patrons, family, and friends because it has given libraries a platform for digital books and kept working at it. Is it perfect? Obviously not. When someone has to play nice with legalities and publishers, I am happy to rely on an outside company to do that, but now my libraries and patrons will be forced to comply with rules by people in companies that never walk through our doors.

I think that a subscription model for ebooks has been coming down the line as more and more content is being made available. However, to base ebook circulation on print circulation isn't really a viable comparison. There is no real basis of cost comparison for digital book acquisitions vs. print book acquisitions within library collections (that I know of at this point), and the additional work that will result in having to pull records from catalogs if titles are not repurchased is rather daunting to think about (and will require more coffee). On the flip side, there is no set standard for ebook formats or preservation of digital files. These are things that the publishers are thinking about, but honestly, so are we.

No one seems to be happy with this decision by HarperCollins, but it also the first deal of this kind, and deals can be revisited and revised. They have even invited emails from librarians and others on the topic to be sent to library.ebook@harpercollins.com. Please, if you do take the time to write to them, show them your passion for your profession, but also your professional courtesy.

I will be interested to see what the next steps we as librarians take to try to ensure that the next publisher wanting to go subscription on ebooks does it on our terms, not theirs.  

I'll be taking it with more coffee too, I am sure.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a librarian but I still have strong feelings about this after reading about what is happening. I'm a frequent user of the library-- what my husband like to call a power user-- and check out at least 50-60 novels per year, 20-30 cookbooks, and maybe 10-15 reference or non-fiction. For me the beauty of the library is that I can take home any book I want and not have to worry about whether or not it is going to be useful or if I'm going to enjoy it. I've taken books back after not reading them at all because I didn't have time, and I've returned them after reading the first few pages and realizing the book wasn't my cup of tea.

    I'd have a hard time downloading an e-book from my library and doing the same knowing that I "wasted" one use of the book and potentially kept another patron from reading it who really wanted to.

    Lots to think about! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject-- if you hadn't I might never have heard a thing about it!

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