Maine libraries upset about HarperCollins' eBook lending limits

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PORTLAND — Maine libraries are pushing back against one of the nation’s leading book publishers looking to limit the number of times an eBook can be loaned.

The resistance comes two weeks after HarperCollins announced it would be the first publisher to limit eBook checkouts to 26 times per copy. 

Currently, many Maine libraries offer unlimited eBook checkouts through the Maine InfoNet Library, which purchases eBook licensing rights through Overdrive, a nationwide eBook distributor.

Libraries pay an annual membership fee to the state, ranging from $100 to $1,500, depending on population, so card-carrying patrons can download more than 2,100 eBook titles, as well as audio books, for free.

Patrons have up to two weeks to read the eBook before it expires.

Libraries can lend most eBooks out as many times as they want. But on Feb. 25, HarperCollins announced that libraries could only lend new eBook titles out 26 times.

If libraries want to continue offering the publisher’s titles, they would have to pay additional licensing fees.

The shift highlights the tenuous and unsettled nature of the eBook market and its role in libraries, many of which are scrambling to meet an increase in demand.

Sarah Campbell, the Portland Public Library’s director of lending and technical services, said libraries nationwide are trying to organize and fight for their interests in the wake of HarperCollins announcement.

“It’s a major, major issue of discussion right now at all levels in the library community,” Campbell said.

Maine InfoNet Executive Director James Sanborn said the average cost of an eBook license is around $15, ranging from $8 to $10 for older titles to $24 to $27 for newer bestsellers.

Sanborn said libraries have reacted strongly against HarperCollins because they are concerned that other major publishers would follow suit.

“I’m obviously concerned about that being the case,” Sanborn said. “I’m hoping the negative publicity (HarperCollins) got around this will keep other publishers from doing it.

“But you never know whether this is the initial storm and HarperCollins took the heat for everybody,” he added.

Sanborn said the more than 450 HarperCollins eBooks, or about 20 percent of the state’s roughly 2,100 collection, would be grandfathered.

“At a minimum, it’s going to make me think twice before I buy a HarperCollins book, which is too bad because they have some pretty good books,” he said.

In 2010, HarperCollins had 107 titles on the New York Times bestseller list, 11 of which were number one bestsellers.

Sanborn said he bought more than 100 eBook titles on Monday, none of which were published by HarperCollins.

The change in licensing terms comes at a time where eBook demand is soaring and libraries are scrambling to accommodate the new reading platform.

“It’s just disheartening we’re hitting this bump in the road at this stage,” Sanborn said.

But the uncertainty about what a successful business model might look like for the publishing industry could also jeopardize Maine’s budding eLibary system, which is used by 170 libraries.

Overdrive Chief Executive Officer Steve Potash said in a letter that major publishers are worried about the effect unlimited eLending by large consortiums, like the one in Maine, is having on their bottom lines.

“Digital book sales are now a significant percentage of all publisher and author revenue,” Potash said in a Feb. 24 letter. “Publishers seek to ensure that sufficient copies of their content are being licensed to service demand of the libraries’ service area.”

Sanborn said the state’s three-year contract with Overdrive expires this year. It’s unclear whether the pressure from major publishers will force a dramatic change in the terms of the agreement.

If the change is too severe, Sanborn said the state could look to another distributor.

But if the state moves away from Overdrive, the state “could potentially” lose its collection, Sanbourn said.

That scenario is what concerns South Portland Library Director Kevin Davis, who has previously expressed concerns about the supply side of eBook lending.

While libraries can keep, lend and re-sell physical books for as long as possible, Davis said the current system puts libraries “over a barrel,” since entire digital collections can be wiped clean.

“As we see with Harper’s policy change, the content providers can change their terms as they feel fit, and we have no choice but to accept the change,” Davis said.

While libraries would receive the greatest benefit by being able to endlessly lend digital books, Davis said he understands the need to create a model that is fair to publishers and authors.

Davis said 26 checkouts may be a fair amount, provided future licenses for the same book be offered at lower price.

Portland Public Library Executive Director Steve Podgajny said he also understands the need a profitable business model to publishers and authors.

The problem with HarperCollins’ announcement, Podgajny said, was the justification the publisher used to justify the limit.

HarperCollins argued the 26 checkout limit was comparable to the shelf life of a physical book, which Davis and Podgajny said was not necessarily the case.

The PPL’s Campbell said there are more than 86,000 items that have been checked out more than 26 times, and 32,000 items that have been checked out more than 50 times.

“It’s unfortunate they used that example,” Podgajny said. “I think it clouded what I think is a really legitimate question.”

Although the supply side of the current eBook landscape is still unknown, Podgajny said he is still enthusiastic about eBooks, which are increasingly in demand by PPL patrons.

Records indicate that nearly 320 eBooks were signed out of the Portland Public Library last December, whereas 400 were checked out in January and more than 440 were signed out in February.

Although libraries are not happy with the 26 checkout limit, Sanbourn said HarperCollins could have decided to imitate Amazon’s model, where its Kindle only processes books bought at its online store and does not work with lending services like Overdrive.

“It’s better than (Amazon), but it’s still not good,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or