HarperCollins Puts Its Funeral Procession Into Overdrive

26 02 2011
2007 Disney Weekends #4: Darth Vader

"I'm altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further."

Just when you thought the publishing world didn’t need another fiasco, here one gets thrown in everyone’s lap. HarperCollins has elected to change the deal that they have with libraries in a mind-bogglingly myopic display of poor decision making. See, HarperCollins did allow ebooks to be distributed through Overdrive, which is a very clever system for treating ebooks like real books. A customer checks out a copy of the book via the Overdrive service, has that copy on their device for 3 weeks or so, and then the copy is removed and back on the virtual shelves for check out by another patron.

And it’s a system like that that has the potential to help libraries and publishers make the transition to the new digital world of books.

That is, until HarperCollins decided to go crazy and play the DRM card, as they announced that they will be limiting downloads of the book to 26 before nuking the copy completely. The library then has to buy another digital copy as we all pretend that 26 is the magic number of times that a physical book can be checked out before becoming an unreadable mess of tattered pages. The Overdrive scenario already employs the simulacra in allowing only so many simultaneous checkouts as the library owns, but this next step of treating the digital apple like a paper orange is too out there. Honestly, how much of the overall dollars going from libraries to publishers is from replacing books that they’ve already bought once before? I’m going to reckon that’s a pretty small piece of the pie.

Libraries and publishers need to be working together during this period of very rapid change or they’re going to kill themselves off. Overdrive is a great way that flows with the change and begin to define a space for libraries in the digital environment and that’s always been good for publishers, who need libraries because libraries produce readers. In other words, libraries overall are going to produce more value for publishing houses and books and reading than they’ll take away by checking out copies to patrons.

Instead of going with the change and looking for ways to make it better, however, HarperCollins appears to have gotten spooked and now stands with its arms outstretched against the oncoming train. This is not good for libraries and not good for them either. If you try to rein in change, you’ll just get flattened. DRM, folks, is bad. Real bad. What better way to encourage reading and readership than to strangle libraries with crippleware. Meanwhile, you can almost hear Amazon giggling in the corner, because they’ll be the big winners in all of this (especially since they’re the ones trying to actually make it EASIER for readers to read books).

Also, the entire fiasco is playing out over twitter now under the hashtag #hcod. Enjoy.