March 8, 2011 -- In what is shaping up to be a major battle over e-book lending, librarians across the country have banded together to boycott HarperCollins after the publisher decided it would limit the number of times an e-book can be checked out.
Under a new policy started Monday, HarperCollins will allow libraries lend out a digital version of a book just 26 times before the license expires. After that, the libraries must pay to lease the e-book again, so that another 26 readers can check out the book.
As more readers migrate to digital books and e-readers, publishers are under increasing pressure to create new business models to help them turn a profit. But since HarperCollins annnounced its decision last month, librarians have taken to the Web in protest, saying the plan will ultimately bring libraries to their knees.
"Right now, [e-books are] just gravy, but at some point this is going to be how a lot of people are reading and this isn't a sustainable business model for reading," said Kate Sheehan, an information specialist with Bibliomation, a Connection consortium of public and school libraries. "If this becomes the precedent for the long-term it's going to be devastating for libraries."
Across the blogosphere, librarians have used the information technology tools that they know best to unleash their criticisms of HarperCollins' new policy. Two librarians even launched a site called boycottharpercollins.com that broadcasts in big block letters on its homepage: "Are we still boycotting HarperCollins? Yes."
The site calls for a boycott of HarperCollins books until the company revokes the e-book policy and includes a sample letter to the publisher asking them to reconsider.
The founders of the site did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ABCNews.com. But in an auto-reply, they shared the names and e-mail addresses of more than a dozen librarians who had blogged about the HarperCollins decision and could talk about the issues involved.
When contacted by ABCNews.com, a HarperCollins spokeswoman referenced a statement released by the company last week.
"We are striving to find the best model for all parties. Guiding our decisions is our goal to make sure that all of our sales channels, in both print and digital formats, remain viable, not just today but in the future. Ensuring broad distribution through booksellers and libraries provides the greatest choice for readers and the greatest opportunity for authors' books to be discovered," the statement said.
Libraries Band to Boycott HarperCollins
In the statement, HarperCollins said it spent several months talking to agents, distributors and librarians before making its decision. It came up the 26 loan limit per book after looking at a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a traditional print book.
For the books with the highest demand, 26 circulations provides a year of availability, the company said, adding that less popular books could last even longer. When libraries repurchase a book after hitting the limit, the price will be even lower, as it will reflect the paperback price.
But librarians say that the policy amounts to an imposed "self-destruction" of digital books, which significantly undermines the way libraries support themselves.
Even though print books don't last forever, Sheehan said, libraries still make use of books that have suffered years of wear and tear.
As bestsellers become less popular and more tattered, libraries can resell copies to the public or use them in community book clubs. But she said that, in the long run, HarperCollins' policy will essentially change the nature of public libraries.
"I appreciate that something has to be done, but this isn't really going to work for libraries," she said. "We're not a business, we're a commons. It means that we have different needs. We don't have a bottom line to look out for, but this turns us into a rental outfit in the long-term."