Twenty-six

Given my interest in bookbinding, it’s probably no surprise that I have a great love for books as physical objects. I love the feel and the scent of the pages. I love how they sit on the shelves. I love it when bindings speak for themselves. Still, despite this (and again, no surprise given that my undergraduate major was English), I view books not just as mere objects, but also as vessels. I buy books only when I am likely to read and/or reference them in the future; otherwise, I turn to the library—or, occasionally, a friend. I only have so much shelf space, so much time for reading, and so much money, and there are other things I would like to do with these resources; it’s a matter of physical, temporal, and financial economics.

Recently, the Annoyed Librarian (as well as countless others) has written a few pieces on HarperCollins’s new e-book policy (12), and when reading about this (including comments from HarperCollins’s President of Sales), I can’t help but get annoyed too. Now, I understand that publishers have to make money in order to survive, but the path they are on right now is unsustainable. We’ve seen similarly panicked behavior from the music industry, and I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone if I say that the record labels didn’t handle the problem of piracy very well; in fact, their behavior may well have made the problem worse. iTunes has since proven that given a reasonable pricing model and ease of purchase, consumers will pay for digital music. I’m not certain that the movie industry has learned this lesson yet, and it seems clear now that the book publishers haven’t, either.

It makes very little sense to me that e-books should self-destruct after 26 uses. I understand to a certain extent the argument that libraries will purchase fewer copies because physical wear is a non-issue, but it takes far more than 26 checkouts for a book to deteriorate to the point of needing replacement, or even rebinding (cf. this video from the Virtual Library of the Pioneer Library System). Additionally, this argument at least partly assumes that print copies will no longer be purchased, by either institutions or individuals, and yet reports of the impending doom of print books are highly exaggerated; e-book sales may be up, but they are still dwarfed by print book sales.

I don’t own an e-reader, and I’m not likely to until publishers and vendors let go of digital rights management (DRM). And that’s a shame, because even with my love of books as objects, I could see myself finding a use for an e-reader, especially as a student. The problem is that if I spend money on a book, I expect to own it, not merely license it—and libraries should expect the same. With print books, I can lend them to friends (who, if they enjoy it well enough, might just decide to buy their own copy), sell them at a yard sale, or leave them sitting in a box in front of my apartment with “FREE STUFF” written on the box in large, friendly letters. I should be able to treat electronic content in the same way (granted that I can’t leave it in a box), as long as I’m not distributing multiple copies. This is the difference between ownership and licensing, and it boggles my mind that publishers should feel justified in treating consumers differently simply because of the format we have chosen to pay for. We shouldn’t stand for it.

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