Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thought experiment on limiting the lifespan of ebooks

So HarperCollins, a book publisher, has announced a new policy whereby they will sell ebooks to libraries with a limited number of loans built in. They have fixed the number at 26 loans. This is effectively a pay per circ model, levied only on libraries.

There are two reasons why this is a bad idea. The first is that HarperCollins will sell fewer, not more copies this way.

The second is that it will shorten the shelf life of older titles. This will hurt authors and publishers by removing them from a venue that sells their books for them.

The rational for a pay per circ ebook model is that, because ebooks last forever, a public library that buys an ebook, like a child who buys an Everlasting Gobstopper (TM), will never have to buy another. Therefore, libraries won't buy the theoretically endless copies of tree-books that they might have bought in order to replace worn out books. Publishers are losing sales. Alas.

I believe that HarperCollins thinks that it has a cash cow here. The thinking might go something along the lines of "somebody will always be reading X title by Clive Cussler, ergo, libraries will need to repurchase X title in perpetuity." From long experience building and weeding collections of tree books, here's what I think might actually happen:

I’m going to use as an example The DaVinci Code. I currently have 11 tree-copies. The oldest three have 64, 48, and 47 circs respectively. The first 3 titles, the oldest, were bought in 2003. I would have had to buy 7 e-copies to satisfy those tree-circs. HarperCollins has just magnified my initial costs by 2.3.

The remaining 8 copies are all from 2006 and later. We were still buying copies in 2006, because the DaVinci Code was a freakishly popular book. The remaining titles have circulations of 2, 6, 6, 7, 9, 12, 16, and 19. They have a total of 77 circs between them. Huh. I would only have needed three e-copies to satisfy all those circs. Now, 8 users couldn't simultaneously read 3 copies... but all those uses weren't simultaneous. I obviously didn't need anywhere near all 8 copies later on.

Now, if I needed 7 copies to start and only 3 copies later on, I should just buy 10 copies and be done with it, right? Very tidy.  This is, I will point out, one less than the tree copies I actually bought. What I know, from weeding my own libraries' collections, is that books have a kind of life cycle. We needed way more than 10 copies of The DaVinci Code in 2003. We need way less now. Use plummets so that, over time, you need far fewer copies to satisfy the same number of circs.

Obviously, ebooks and tree-books are not the same animal. They don't act the same way in the wild. Ebooks spines don't break, so libraries don't have to worry about their usefulness being cut off early. But print books don't cost 3 times as much to get 3 times the circ.

In fact ebooks are still supplementary to my collection. Where the library market is concerned, they are gravy to the publisher. But let's assume HarperCollins is looking forward to a brave new world where libraries circulate ebooks alone. Are they preserving a portion of the market they would lose by attempting to build obsolescence into an otherwise obsolescence proof format?

Here’s what I ask myself: If I know that the number of uses of a book will go down over time, does it matter if some of my patrons wait an extra 2 weeks to read that popular title because I bought 8 copies instead of 10?  Because fewer copies will eventually satisfy the same number of circs, I am dis-incentivized to buy more copies.

It looks to me that what Harper Collins has done is inflated the value of the circ, and deflated the value of the copy. This might have lots of consequences. How many books do even as well as The DaVinci Code? Less popular books don't even get 26 circs. Should I even bother to buy them? I certainly won't get my full use out of them. That question kind of deflates the value of HarperCollins’ midlist.

Then at the end of a book’s life cycle, instead of keeping one copy on the shelf to satisfy newer fans of an author, I am faced with the decision of whether or not to buy another 26 circs of an older title (where a gently used book or an unlimited use ebook would have stayed on the shelf forever) or an extra 26 circs of the next passing literary fad. That kind of forced choice is unsustainable for libraries. HarperCollins is asking for libraries to pay for ebooks in perpetuity. How would that serve the needs of our patrons? In reality, it's an active limit to a book's shelf life.

HarperCollins is trying to create an artificial scarcity or obsolescence, inflating operating costs for libraries and forcing libraries to buy more copies of books than they ultimately need. But I think it will backfire. Librarians are conservative buyers. In reality, we have limited budgets. In the end, a library would buy fewer copies of ebooks than tree-books as replacements for worn out copies... but they will be buying fewer copies over all, and many will not be renewed after they become less popular.

Which brings us to our second point. By moving to a pay per circ model, HarperCollins is devaluing their own role as a publisher of books.

One thing the pay per circ model points up is that HarperCollins is in the business of selling widgets in the form of  units of use. Libraries are not in the business of selling units of use. We are in the business of selling access to stuff that the tax paying public wouldn’t normally get access to.

Unfortunately, we have limits. In the case of tree books, our hard limit is shelf space, which forces us to remove books that aren’t getting used heavily.* We don't have the same kind of issue with e-books, but as I pointed out above, we have limited budgets. That means in a pay per circ model we can't buy unlimited circs for a given title.

This is where I may sound cranky. In "business land" libraries have been characterized as leeches that take the efforts of publishers and devalue them by spreading those efforts around too far. What 12 people should have bought, one person bought and 11 read for free. That's like socialism. Icky, Icky, literary socialism.

But libraries don’t work the same way as the open market. We sell access, not units. For books, access is often better. Libraries introduce readers to new authors, encouraging them to buy copies of books they loved just to keep one. Those books would not have been bought if the library hadn't lent them in the first place.

Libraries also extend the life of an author’s career. We not only sell copies of an author's current book, we sell copies of a author's next book by keeping out-of-print titles on the shelf for readers to find by browsing. We do this long past the efforts of a publisher to market the author or book. Libraries allow readers more chances for exposure to an author than a publisher ever does.**

If a pay per circ model succeeds, libraries will be forced to choose between buying another 26 circs of a once popular title, or 26 circs of a currently hot title. Which doesn’t do authors any favors.

Ebook or tree books, each time a consumer buys a book they take a risk. Will I like it? Won't I? I dunno. Maybe I shouldn't risk it right now. Libraries socialize that risk, exposing readers to new authors and creating new customers. HarperCollins will effectively kill an author’s visibility by actively limiting their lifespan on the shelf. Libraries offer greater word of mouth advertising than publishers, over time. Taking authors out of libraries just penalizes them further, and really just steps on the author's and publishers's bottom line.

It's harder for ebooks to generate word of mouth than tree-books. Ebooks aren't easy to browse. You can't loan them effectively, or resell them. None of these things will prevent the adoption of ebooks, though, because in the end the consumer doesn't care about other people's uses of the item they pay for. And it's just going to get worse over time. The durability, portability, and ease of use of ebooks mean that each title is competing with more and more titles on the electronic shelf over time.

And, of course, selling books by circ may also eliminate the number of venue an author’s book can be found in. Selling by circ vastly inflates the cost for libraries, and is going to cause libraries to struggle harder to provide good service, making them less useful to taxpayers. If  libraries close, they leave people without service. That, by the way, leaves authors without readers.

*In fact, you could say that HarperCollins is doing libraries a favor by selling us self=weeding books: we won't raise the ire of Nicholson Baker for throwing away copies that we don't have room for any more. They will just disappear…

**There is another problem in that many publishers don't allow their ebooks to be lent by libraries, cutting off a venue for that title by disallowing access to the format. It more of a problem for ebook only publications. But I digress.

No comments: