Printed books vs. e-books: Should publishers impose borrowing limits on e-book copies even though there aren’t equivalent limits on paper copies?

imageE-book users hate long waits for popular titles from local public libraries. But library vendors like OverDrive haven’t any choice in most cases, given the wishes of publishers. A common business model for OverDrive seems to be: treat E like P, in that only one patron at a time can check out a specific copy of a particular title that a library system bought.

imageNow HarperCollins will be worsening the situation, by imposing check-out limits on future e-books that libraries buy—er, rent. Look, I can understand the complications of letting libraries buy one copy and distribute it to the entire planet without further payment to the publisher. But that’s not what is happening currently with OverDrive.

imageFor all library use, not just the OverDrive-related variety, HarperCollins will be greedily setting a cap of 26 checkouts on a particular copy. I heartily recommend that OverDrive follow the advice of some clueful librarians and get more serious about including books from publishers friendlier to libraries. That would include many small publishing houses eager to see more exposure through inclusion of their e-books in library collections (disclosure: a small house published my novel. which, in paper form, has already ended up at a few libraries).

Needless to say, a well-stocked, well-designed national digital library system could help address the check-out-limit issue by giving public libraries more leverage, and, at the same time, publishing houses could actually come out ahead—since the system could create new revenue streams and, I’d hope, offer fair compensation to publishers and writers. The use of indirect cost-justification could help convince politicians to expand the funding available.

What’s more, a national digital library system could experiment with new business models allowing many people at once to read the same book, perhaps with shorter loan durations to keep this affordable and encourage the actual purchases of book (one idea that a prominent publishing consultant has discussed on a private email list).

Meanwhile, given that books are social objects, I suspect that both libraries and publishers would benefit from experimentation with extra-short-duration loans allowing a number of people to be reading the same book without bankrupting the library system. Traditional-length loans could still be available for patrons who were first in the cyberlines.

I hate restrictions of any kind, and I see libraries as existing primarily to serve society at large, not private interests. But a little experimentation, maybe a lot of experimentation, would not hurt—especially the kind that encouraged synergies among publishers, bookstores and libraries, all of which encourage reading. Of course, the best approach would be longer-duration loans, but for that to happen, library funding will have to grow accordingly. I hope it does!

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