The sometimes uneasy relationship between librarians and book publishers reached a new level of tension after HarperCollins—citing the explosive growth of e-book sales—announced a new e-book lending policy beginning March 7 that will limit the length of its library licenses to a maximum of 26 loans per e-title. The revised policy has outraged librarians, who say the new policy will strain budgets and is shortsighted, ignoring the role of libraries in encouraging literacy and building an e-book market for publishers. The issue has become so emotional that some librarians have organized a boycott of HarperCollins new books over the issue.

Librarians found out about the policy through a letter last week from Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, the library e-book wholesaler, announcing that going forward HarperCollins will limit the length of library e-book licenses to 26 checkouts, or roughly a year. Once the 26 checkouts have been reached, libraries must purchase a new license. In the past, library licenses have been unlimited, but in his letter to librarians, Potash said that, “several trade publishers are re-evaluating eBook licensing terms for library lending services. Publishers are expressing concern and debating their digital future where a single eBook license to a library may never expire, never wear out, and never need replacement.”

Indeed as the popularity of e-books have grown, publishers have grown even more leery of the role of libraries in lending e-books, fearful that the availability of digital books from a library will make it far too easy to avoid buying them from a retailer. Typically libraries buy licenses to titles that allow e-books to be checked out one at a time like a physical book—another concession to publishers that irritates many librarians—a practice that denies the obvious ability of digital content to be loaned to an unlimited number of library patrons. Patrons also don’t “return” library e-books, because they are designed to expire and cease to work at the end of their loan periods.

Potash’s Letter to Librarians

Potash’s letter also went on to outline other publisher concerns, requiring that OverDrive and its library clients honor, “geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.),” in other words, OverDrive and the libraries must make sure that patrons borrowing e-books have library cards and are resident in that library’s district.

Librarians are easily one of the most wired and web savvy of the book-related professions, and their reactions on library blogs, websites, Twitter and elsewhere were swift, heated and direct, denouncing the new policy and calling for a response from librarians. Indeed some librarians have been critical of Potash and OverDrive, claiming the vendor did not offer sufficient resistance to the new policy. Potash addressed these concerns, noting that OverDrive is required to carry out the policies of each publishers’ license. But he has also removed HarperCollins’ e-book catalog from OverDrive’s Library Marketplace, a librarian-only site OverDrive uses to market e-books to librarians, until the situation and the new policy is clearly understood by all libraries.

HarperCollins’ Responds to Library Concerns

Yesterday Josh Marwell, HarperCollins president of sales, released an open letter to librarians detailing HarperCollins’reasons for the change of policy. Marwell wrote that HarperCollins’ library e-book policies were 10 years old and date from “a time when the number of e-readers was too small to measure.”

He pointed out that it has been projected that nearly 40 million e-reading devices will be purchased by consumers in the coming year and said, “We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.”

Marwell said the new policy was reached after consulting with agents, distributors and librarians and the 26 checkouts would offer about a “year of availability for titles with the highest demand, and much longer for other titles and core backlist.” Once a license reaches 26 checkouts, a new license will have to be purchased but at a lower price pegged to the paperback price.

So far, librarians remain dissatisfied with the HarperCollins response and two librarians, Brett Bonfield and Gabriel Farrell, have organized a Boycott HarperCollins website that offers a place for librarians to vent their frustration, organize a response, discuss the actual viability of a boycott or find other ways to address the situation. A spokesperson for HarperCollins said the publisher has “no comment” on the boycott.

OverDrive in the Middle

In a phone interview with Potash, he said he removed the HarperCollins e-book catalog from OverDrive’s Library Marketplace because many librarians still did not understand that Harper’s licensing policy was changing. “We don’t want to make these titles available at the new terms until all librarians understand the changes.” Potash was clearly uncomfortable over the notion of boycotting HarperCollins, emphasizing that many librarians, “don’t realize that HarperCollins was one of the first publishers to offer e-books for lending through libraries.” Indeed, the debate over the new policy has served to highlight the fact that S&S and Macmillan don’t license e-books to libraries at all.

Potash said he was “not aware of any other publishers following HarperCollins’ e-book lending policy so far.” While Potash said, “I understand the frustration,” he also said that HarperCollins could have dropped lending e-book entirely and that, “librarians can also decide whether they want to continue building the e-book market for publishers.”

“We continue talking to publishers and librarians. We think both sides are not focusing on what it means to buy e-books now, rather than two or three years from now,” Potash said. “But I can’t tell publishers and agents what to do. This is unsettling to OverDrive, we’ve got to engineer and manage these policies and it’s not simple to do.”