Friday, March 04, 2011

The HarperCollins gambit

HarperCollins, one of the huge publishing conglomerates that dominate the commercial book world, announced that libraries “purchasing” their e-books will be able to lend such a book only twenty-six times before the book expires. The Twitterverse exploded with accusations of corporate greed and the absolute entitlement of libraries and their patrons to not only cheap but probably free books from publishers, on the theory that libraries don’t have enough money to pay for books in the first place. This view was supported by some authors who want their words read, and hang the royalties.

I suspect part of brouhaha was sparked by the injudicious use of the word purchase. E-books are software. As such, they are licensed, not purchased. When you “buy” an e-book, you are licensing the right to read it. There is nothing physical that you own. When you buy a p-book, you own the physical object. One person can read it at a time. In the U.S., when a library purchases a p-book, the author collects the royalty on one sale, and that’s the end of the transaction. In many countries (the United Kingdom and Australia among them), authors receive payments based on how many times a library lends a book. Not so here.

Another confusion arises over copying. You cannot take an in-copyright p-book to a copy shop and ask that copies be made of it. Copy shops know that’s illegal copyright infringement. But copying a digital file is trivially simple, so some people think they should be allowed to make unlimited copies of e-books and they castigate publishers for trying to protect e-books with digital rights management (DRM) technology. Yet copying is still copying is still copyright infringement. The rationale of the infinitely entitled—that unlike a p-book, which costs the publisher money for ink and paper, an e-book has no production cost—exhibits a profound misunderstanding of what publishers do and how they spend their money.

The worldview of authors (principally academics) who are secure, salaried professionals and publish books for the purpose of sharing information is very different from the worldview of authors who seek income from writing. (Yes, I know there are some academics, authors of popular undergraduate textbooks, who make a nice supplemental income from royalties; but they’re the exceptions.) One group would like libraries to get all their books free and devote their limited budgets to promoting those books to readers. The other group would like to receive royalties every time a book is checked out. Neither group seems to see any role for publishers or to think that publishers have any costs to recoup.

My point in this discussion of the HarperCollins e-book gambit is not that twenty-six is the right number or that charging more for an e-book than for a p-book can be justified. My point is that there needs to be some calm discussion between groups with differing worldviews so that a rational pricing model can emerge. This is early days in the evolution of e-books, and I have no idea where we will end up.

What has irked me about the tenor of most of the comments I’ve seen is a sense of absolute entitlement on the part of librarians to pick the pockets of publishers and authors—the people who put dinner on the tables of editors and book designers, I should add, just so you know where my interests lie. Libraries cost money to run. They are a public benefit. We, the public, should pay their costs and be happy to do so. Publishers should be free to price their goods in whatever way maximizes their profits in a competitive marketplace, and libraries should be free to buy or not buy a given publisher’s books as a result. But libraries are not entitled to a free ride at publishers’ expense just because the public feels entitled to pay too little in taxes.

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