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Publishing News: Week in Review

HarperCollins outraged librarians, publishers get creative with distribution, and digital authors need new skills.

Here are some highlights of what caught my attention in publishing news this week. (Note: These stories were published here on Radar throughout the week.)

HarperCollins decided ebooks would wear out after 26 uses

OverDrive CEO Steve Potash sent a notice to libraries about new restrictions and changes in OverDrive’s territory policies. The notice, which sparked an outcry from libraries, library patrons and even some authors, announced that a major U.S. publishing house (later identified as HarperCollins) would be placing a 26-time lending cap on its titles.

In a lively #followreader discussion last Friday on Twitter, Peter Brantley, director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, suggested libraries respond with a touch of aggression to make a point:

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Ron Hogan, author and host of Beatrice.com responded to Brantley, taking it a bit further:

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Neil Gaiman, a HarperCollins author, responded to the situation on Twitter as well:

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Gaiman’s suggestion of implementing PLR — public lending rights, a process used in the UK — in the U.S. was discussed in the #followreader session. You can see the entire session here or by searching Twitter for the hashtag #followreader.

Brantley also pointed to a second concerning item in the OverDrive notice:

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The section of the note he’s referring to states (via Librarian by Day):

In addition, our publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.). I can assure you OverDrive is not interested in managing or having any say in your library policies and issues. Select publisher terms and conditions require us to work toward their comfort that the library eBook lending is in compliance with publisher requirements on these topics.

Brantley responded:

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Heather McCormack, Book Review Editor at Library Journal, commented on the HarperCollins situation in an e-mail interview. She highlighted the issue of trust:

The most obvious short-term consequence is what appears to be a mass obliteration of trust. Don’t get me wrong — there was ample discontent with the ebook loaning model as it stood. DRM and Overdrive’s interface have long been pointed to as stumbling blocks in providing easy access to information, and yet the model was largely tolerated. With the announcement of HarperCollins’ loaning cap, however, a sizable contingent of librarians have had it. See “The Ebook User Bill of Rights” issued this week by a set of advocates led by Andy Woodworth and Sarah Houghton-Jan, and the charge to boycott HarperCollins content by librarians Brett Bonfield and Gabriel Farrell.

No trust means little to no communication, of course, and that’s what scares me the most. Librarians have long been shut out of conversations about the ebook loaning model, so from where I’m standing, it doesn’t make much sense for librarians to formally sever their commercial relationships with HarperCollins. Cap or no cap, they have a responsibility to provide access to information, and in order to fulfill their mission, they need to do the exact opposite of a boycott. They need to join forces on an unprecedented scale to lobby for value for their communities and collections: paging the blogosphere; paging ALA; paging the publishers who do support libraries; paging the sea of patrons who are ultimately affected.

As for long-term effects, I hope HarperCollins’ move isn’t replicated in its exact terms, but I do hope it will set a precedent of publishers and librarians engaging much more directly about new loaning models. A good, old-fashioned dustup can pave the way for clearer communication and progress.

It’s important to note that a couple of the major U.S. publishing houses — Simon & Schuster and MacMillan — don’t make their titles available for digital lending at all.

For more on these moves, check out related links posted at Librarian by Day, and commentary by Jane Litte at Dear Author and Martyn Daniels at Brave New World.

Retail bookselling moved to niche retailers to reach new audiences

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As publishers struggle to adapt to the changing economy and the changing technological landscapes, distribution becomes more and more of a challenge. With large bookstore chains failing and consumers turning to the Internet to buy books, the sales agreements with traditional bookstores are starting to make less sense. Sheila Bounford, deputy managing director of NBN International, described the distribution problem in a recent blog post:

It is well known that when it comes to returns, bricks and mortar booksellers feel that they deserve equal discounts to those enjoyed by the online retailers whilst also maintaining that in order to offer range, they must have the right to return. What this ignores is that although the online retailers theoretically have the right to return, they almost never exercise it. Returns from online resellers run at less than 1% of invoice value. From the high street it is usually well in excess of 10% and often very very much higher. Returns are a drain on publishers’ resources. Not just in terms of the cost of the book which is often unsaleable — but in terms of the cost of administration.

Some publishers are addressing distribution and point-of-sale issues with creativity. A recent New York Times piece looked at how publishers are selling books through non-traditional, non-bookstore retailers. These niche outlets expand sales reach, allowing publishers access to consumers who might never step foot in a bookstore. Another plus noted in the Times article: books sold through these channels are generally non-returnable.

One publisher tapping these non-traditional markets is Chronicle Books, which sells titles through Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom, Toys R Us, and Paper Source. In an e-mail interview, Kim Anderson, executive director of sales at Chronicle Books, said this model has worked very well:

Chronicle has long relied on non-traditional book retailers as an important part of our business model and long-term growth. The change in the book retail landscape over the last couple of years has only further highlighted the importance of this channel to our overall success.

Dana Newman on authors and the e-pocalypse

Trademark-symbol.pngAs the publishing industry wrestles its way into the digital age, a lot of conversation has centered around digital platforms, distribution woes, technological enhancement possibilities and how publishers and readers are adapting and adjusting to the new landscape. But where do authors fit into this mix?

In a recent interview, Dana Newman, a transactional and intellectual property attorney, talked about what authors need to do to protect themselves and their brands, in addition to their books:

Rather than think in terms of “I want to sell my book,” think about “I want to license all of my intellectual property rights.” Realize that it’s not just your book, per say. It may be electronic rights, it may be multimedia rights — it may be all these other areas that your book may be exploited.

Before you enter into an agreement, make sure you understand it. Make sure you understand how you’re granting those rights, and if you’re granting all of your rights to one particular publisher, [ask yourself] do they have the ability and the plan to role out those other platforms for you?

Also, don’t forget about trademarks. Authors are being told now they have to get out there, they have to market themselves. They are their brand. Don’t forget to register your trademark — your name …

During the interview, Newman also discussed the future of territory rights, embracing the “e-pocalypse,” and why the film industry’s experience with the digital transition contains lessons for the book world. The full interview is available in the following video:

Got news?

Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.


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  • bob

    I wonder how the librarians feel about Safari. It’s much more restrictive than HarperCollin’s solution.

  • http://xclmedia.com xclmedia

    Good article, yes