Publisher Attempts to Limit E-Book Circulation, Libraries Fight Back



It's a brave new electronic world we live in, where blogs like this one that you're reading have replaced daily newspapers, e-mail and Facebook updates have replaced letters and phone calls, and the heavy stacks of textbooks that used to weigh down schoolkids may now be replaced with e-readers.

Only problem is, nobody's figured out how to make money on all this yet, and everybody's afraid of being taken for a sucker. That's why last week HarperCollins Publishers announced that every e-book it sells to a library can only be circulated 26 times. Then it will disappear into the electronic ether. (E-books purchased before last week, however, can continue to be checked out indefinitely.)

Librarians, naturally, were not pleased. Two librarians in the Philadelphia area, Brett Bonfield and Gabriel Farrell, have organized a boycott of HarperCollins, which encompasses more than 30 different imprints. They argue that libraries don't have the funds to keep purchasing e-books; depending on the check-out period, a book that circulates 26 times would only last a year to a year and a half, less time than many printed books.

St. Louis-area libraries, however, haven't decided yet how they're going to deal with this new development in electronic reading. The Municipal Library Consortium of St. Louis County, which includes nine libraries, will be meeting on Thursday to discuss the issue, says Patrick Wall, incoming director of the University City Library.

But, says Linda Ballard, the outgoing director (this morning marks the transfer of power to Wall), "I suspect strongly that we will not boycott HarperCollins. It's counterproductive."

The price of e-books and paper books is comparable, says Ballard. "The publisher didn't realize how popular the e-books would be," she explains, adding that U. City didn't start circulating e-books until eight months ago.

"A paper book can circulate one time before it's stolen, lost or eaten by a dog," she continues. "Some circulate 100 times. Some publishers' books fall apart more easily than others. There have been notorious cases of popular best-sellers falling apart after they've gone out two or three times. The damaged books have to be replaced."

"We want to be fair without being taken advantage of," Wall adds. He thinks that, in the end, the libraries will decide to limit their e-book buying to only the most popular titles. Many patrons with e-readers have Kindles, which only accept titles bought from Amazon and are incompatible with the e-books available at the library. ("I have a Kindle," Ballard chimes in. "My husband bought it for me. I don't like it because you can't borrow books. I'm not sure that model will succeed.")

The e-book battle makes Ballard regret that she's stepping down from her post at the library. "It's an interesting time," she says. "Nobody knows what's happening."

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