E-book Mania

In March, we reflected HarperCollins’ new e-book policy for libraries. The publisher capped circulations at 26 to howls of protest from librarians. HarperCollins hasn’t lifted or adjusted its restriction, yet the demand for free e-books continues to increase. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, e-reader ownership is multiplying. One study found the number of Americans who own e-readers jumped from 6 to 12 percent between November 2010 and May 2011. The American Library Association estimates 66 percent of libraries nationwide currently lend e-books to customers. And the demand is growing exponentially!

Our friends at Delaware County Library System (DCLS) in Pennsylvania, who include e-books in their collection, told us that after 10 months of offering e-books, their use now exceeds audiobook use (and audiobook use hasn’t budged). Due to the increase of e-book checkouts, the Library surpassed its total 2010 circulation last month – there’s a possibility it could more than double last year’s circulation by December.

HarperCollins says a physical book wears out after an average of 26 uses. After that time, libraries must buy another copy, which continues the support of the publisher and book’s author. (Collection specialists say that 12 uses dog-ears a paperback beyond use.) With a two-week circulation period, a single e-book version of a popular read would expire in a year’s time.

Libraries say the budget won’t support those limits. To stake its objections, DCLS has discontinued purchasing e-books from HarperCollins.

History repeats itself. We’ve seen the digitization of media pose this problem before with the music industry through the emergence of MP3 players. The increasing ownership of e-readers now poses a potential threat for authors’ economic success—HarperCollins’ restriction protects its authors and ensures they continue to receive their royalties.

But will HarperCollins adjust the cap anytime soon? Boycotting libraries will just have to wait it out.