With the news that Neil Gaiman has just signed a new contract with HarperCollins (prop. Rupert Murdoch), reminded me of something that I read a while back about HarperCollins’ (and to a greater extent it’s parent company, News Corp.) attitude to e-books and libraries.
Now, I absolutely appreciate that publishers have to make money. They’re not charities. Publishers have to be paid for publishing the book and authors have to be paid so they can eat, etc. Books (and e-books) have to make money for all those concerned in making them.
However HarperCollins, along with other long-established publishers, were recently accused by the US Department of Justice of e-book price fixing alongside Apple – partly because they felt they weren’t getting a fair deal from the likes of Amazon (whose Kindle e-book system is immensely popular and rightly so). After the DOJ intervened, the majority of these publishers have already settled up.
So far so good? Not quite.
HarperCollins have another trick up their sleeve which is rather nasty.
HarperCollins are selling e-books to libraries. This is good – quite a few publishers currently don’t do this for a variety of reasons (mostly related to the various digital rights management (DRM) systems that are used to protect e-books from being casually copied by lenders – the most popular of these systems is Overdrive). The bad news is that HarperCollins are enforcing a limit on many times a single e-book title can be lent out by the library (source: Forbes). At the moment this is 26 times. After that, the e-book expires and the library will have to renew/relicense the title back from HarperCollins.
And you thought the film industry was terrible with their DRM systems and enforcing silly policies on consumers? Oh ho! This is only the tip of the iceberg!
Physical books, of course, have no such restriction (that I’m aware of).
This is a particularly nasty practice given that libraries have ever decreasing budgets to work with. There are a number of local libraries here in Surrey facing closure due to budgetary cuts. The local council insist that these libraries will close unless they’re staffed by unpaid volunteers. There’s no cash for part-time or full-time staff.
Consider the cost implications for the library not just for renewing each title after it’s been lent 26 times, but the cost of implementing an automatic system for handling the renewals (IT costs alone would be unreasonable for this especially if you’re dealing with multiple DRM systems and publishers – and getting humans to do it manually for each title even more so – unless the publisher can do all this their side and has an agreement with each library/council to automatically renew/re-license the title).
If restrictive policies such as that proposed by HarperCollins are implemented industry-wide, it’ll ensure that popular titles on a publicly funded library’s e-book lending system become much more difficult to obtain. You might as well just go and buy a copy of the e-book yourself.
Am I somewhat disappointed in the news that Neil has gone with HarperCollins? Not really – mainly because whoever he signed with would have probably had similarly awkward and annoying e-book policies somewhere down the line. None of the big long-established publishers are angels.
Sure, there are a number of really good small publishers that have wonderfully open and generous policies on these things – but I doubt they would have the kind of marketing budget or ability to push titles out to as many territories as well as well as a big publisher like HC can do. The same can be said of film studios and distribution companies. Sometimes you have just got to go with a necessary evil.