Monday, February 28, 2011

What is a Limited-Check-Out eBook Worth?: Two Polls

There's now a "Boycott HarperCollins" website that's trying to channel the response of librarians to the change in license terms I wrote about on Friday. The website, put up by librarians Brett Bonfield and Gabriel Farrell, calls for libraries to stop buying ebooks and print books published by HarperCollins or any of its imprints, and to write letters to HarperCollins' management.

I take a more "dismal" approach to this brouhaha. I simply point out that a limited-check-out ebook is less valuable to a library than an unlimited-check-out ebook. I don't think that anyone would disagree with that. It would be a step forward if everyone involved had a better idea of the extent to which limited-check-out impairs an ebook's value. HarperCollins seems to think the impairment is not too large, while I've not heard any voices in libraries say that it's small.

So here's a poll for librarians designed to find out what unlimited checkouts would be worth compared to a 26 checkout maximum. If you are a librarian, imagine that you are offered two ebooks that your patrons need. An unlimited-checkout version is offered at a deluxe price; a 26-check-out version is offered at a discount. At what discount would you choose the limited version?





And here's a corresponding poll for publishers. Imagine that your standard ebook offering comes with a 26-checkout limit for libraries. How much of a premium would you need to be offered to also offer an unlimited checkout (no simultaneous use) version ?




Of course, the answers will depend on what book we're talking about, what the budgets looks like, etc. but try to imagine what you would do for a typical situation. [Note: It's been pointed out to me that the answer is very different for best-seller vs. reference vs. fiction vs. non-fiction, etc. For the current purposes, consider the range of books published by HarperCollins, i.e. mostly trade books.]

I'm offering these questions to try to help advance library-publisher dialogue, so please don't cheat, answer honestly, and try to get your colleagues to participate as well.

Update 3/5: I discuss the poll results in a new post.

19 comments:

  1. The polls didn't make it through the RSS feed:

    <a href="http://www.blogpolls.com/poll/72906.html">Blog Polls</a>

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  2. It would help if HC terms enabled libraries to lend copies out concurrently - i.e., issue more than one at a time, that would be worth a small premium.

    Otherwise as a rule of thumb (backchannel for citation) an ebook is about 20% the cost of a paper book (certainly a best seller - most of the cost is in transporting paper apparently). There are certain characteristics of a free people, and that merchants can choose to sell something at either i) cost of manufacture or ii) what they can get for it (what the market will pay - usually the more expensive the fewer sales), makes apparently for a free people - it's called a free market, so it must be a free people as well :-S

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  3. Eric, any hope of getting some actual check-out stats from libraries to see how often books go beyond the 26 loans? It's complicated due to the fact that libraries often buy many copies of a bestseller, so the loans are spread across a number of copies, but presumably they could do the same with ebooks. Having the # that goes beyond 26 would make it plausible to do some estimates of what this might cost libraries. In fact, I do believe that OverDrive keeps stats for libraries... so we might be able to get those figures for ebooks. Anyone out there with such stats, please pipe up!

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  4. Karen, According to a tweet from West Chester (PA) Public Library (@WCPLnews) over 10,000 items of their 58,000 holdings have circulated more than 26 times.

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  5. Publishers are profiteering, saying you want the more efficient and effective cultural sector that ebook technology brings with it, then you are going to have to pay for it.

    I would say OK to HC if 1) they charged cost of manufacture for ebooks (which is virtually no media manufacture costs essentially), and 2) library loans could be made concurrently.

    Further maybe all publishers should be made to adhere to these terms.

    Maybe also the ebook should be left in the ownership of the library, but PLA type payments made.

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  6. ebooks have the potential to add a significant boost to the economy - and this is long term as well, not just a free lunch - profiteering by publishers is holding the West back.

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  7. How about if I were to say that the first step for libraries is to some how force publishers to the negotiating table - Government, public otherwise pressure and any other means possible might be able to do it.

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  8. I did a cursory glance (3 James Patterson books) and each one had been under 26 circs. We buy many copies of these books when they come out, they fly out the door for a year and they sit on the shelf. I can see why ebook lenders want to ensure that they are not losing out on "copy" sales.

    However, whereas we were at a point where we were willing to buy extra ebook "copies" to fulfill demand of some of the most popular titles, we may hold back from doing so with the 26 loan books, and instead wait for the ticker to reach 26 before we go and buy another one. Our users will have to wait longer, HC will potentially lose Overdrive sales, but so be it.

    I think it's entirely reasonable to offer some kind of metering for these types of materials. I consider it a failure on Overdrive's part (with perhaps reluctance on HC's part, but we really can't be sure) to negotiate something that offers us more flexibility. A metered solution that fulfills our needs and perhaps pleases publishers as well.

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  9. I think rather than metered, some sort of public lending right type payment per issue (so the book remains the property of the library).

    Publishers might perhaps like to argue also that as the ergonomics of an ebook all but removes the advantage of not owning the book yourself, then, some sort of compromise should be negotiated. I'm sure something could be worked out, in the UK publishers can if they want insist an ebook only be downloaded onto a reading device in the library, or maybe over the Internet a short loan of several hours (or until the library reopens if closed etc.) could be made, enabling people to read when they want to (a very 'reader centred reading' approach, which is something both libraries and publishers have an interest in :)

    It's only really I am sure a question of creative thinking.

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  10. @Karen - took a very unscientific look at several copies of Deathly Hallows in our consortium. Many had fewer than 26 checkouts, many had more than 26 checkouts (some numbering 50+). And given it's a rather large children's book, I'd expect the "wear-and-tear" on this title to be a bit more than your everyday best seller would experience. I'll also note that ALL of the items I looked at had numerous renewals as well, now that hold queues are no longer on the title.

    @gsowww - you're correct that the lack of simultaneous checkouts skews things. We purchased multiple copies of Deathly Hallows when it was popular so simultaneous checkouts could be done, knowing that we'd likely have too many copies once the initial demand was over, but also knowing that the best condition copies left would remain in the collection for future use. With both total and simultaneous usage severed, it makes the HarperCollins model a difficult one for libraries to accept.

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  11. Should be a little more clear than "unlimited" doesn't mean any changes to one-loan-at-a-time and the other existing restrictions.

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  12. Tim- thanks, I've added some word to make that clear.

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  13. holdings of 58k? hmmm, pretty tiny library.

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  14. Karen -- I suspect it is e-book holdings of 58k. That seems pretty reasonable. The original tweet that Eric referenced is http://twitter.com/WCPLnews/status/41225670185070592.

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  15. The story here is something much sadder than a specific restriction on a specific publisher's e-books. Publishers, who generations of readers have seen as their friends, and repositioning themselves as readers' enemies. This can't end well -- at least not for the publishers. In an economy where infinite perfect copies are free, publishers surely need to court readers' goodwill more than ever. If they don't, readers will simply go elsewhere.

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  16. Some more stats (from IMLS data): The average US public library in 2007 had 90,000 print books in its collection. West Chester Public is just a bit smaller than the average. The average book in a public library circulated 2.6 times in 2007.

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  17. I ran some stats on my academic library's database. 8,132 of our 430,414 bib records have been issued 26 times or more - that's 1.9%.

    I summed the figures for multiple items within a single bib record, as that seemed more relevant here. Of course academic and public libraries have differing collections and patrons - YMMV etc.

    I would imagine that a large proportion of the high circulating items have been on course reserve, which is a whole other kettle of fish...

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  18. Eric,

    I think some behavioral economics ideas might apply to this situation. In particular, the observation that people seem particularly sensitive about "losing," i.e., people are more likely to do an action that prevents them from losing $100 than a similar action that gains them $100. In this situation, librarians are very sensitive about losing unlimited circs and publishers are very sensitive about losing sales to libraries because eBooks never wear out. By "very sensitive," I mean more sensitive than rational economics would predict that they should.

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  19. Does behavioral economics give us any insights into ways to move past the fear of loss?

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