E-Book Pricing and Access (and the Implications for Schools and Libraries)

Over at ReadWriteWeb, I've been chronicling the decision by HarperCollins -- as announced by the e-book distributor Overdrive -- to set a limit on the number of times that a library can check out a copy of an e-book. That limit: 26 times. Some math: 26 checkouts at 2 weeks a pop means that a library will have to buy (or I guess the better verb here is "lease") a new copy of an e-book annually -- more frequently if the circulation times are shorter.

This notion that somehow libraries and their mission to share books are a danger to publishers is, of course, ridiculous. And if there's one upside to this whole episode it's that it is bringing much-needed attention to not just the future of libraries, but to the ways in which e-books and DRM are really anti-consumer.

With DRM, you don't own your e-books. You have been granted a license to view it via a piece of proprietary hardware or software. But it's not yours. Not really. You can't share it. Not really. You can't sell a used copy. The publisher or bookseller can take it back (as Amazon famously did with George Orwell books a few years ago).

The HarperCollins news has caused a storm of protests from librarians, and an E-Book Reader's Bill of Rights is now in e-circulation as a response.

If the cap on e-book check-outs isn't chilling enough, there were two more announcements this week from publishers that point to more storm clouds on the horizon.

1) Random House, one of the world's largest publishers, has agreed to the agency pricing model for e-books, the last of the big six publishers to do so. I've seen lots of reports that phrase this as a "Hooray! Random House books in the iBookstore" -- as Apple demands the agency price model for its titles included there. But I'm less than enthused. And here's why: the agency pricing model means that publishers and retailers split book sales 70 - 30. It also means that the publishers set the price, a non-discountable price. No competition, in other words. And that means consumers lose.

2) Another publishing giant, Pearson - and one with a huge stake in education publishing and education technology - is pushing back on Apple's new subscription policy, reports The Guardian. Of course, Pearson's unhappiness over the new cut that Apple will demand from subscriptions, along with its unwillingness to hand over subscriber data, may only pertain to the magazine and newspaper parts of Pearson's business (It's the owner of The Financial Times, for example), and not to its educational wing.

But as these deals play out -- between publishers, retailers, distributors -- I worry that the search for new business models are going to come at the cost of access and affordability for schools and libraries. That's not "news," I guess. But it's disconcerting nonetheless.


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