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Originally published Sunday, April 3, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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Lit Life

Libraries, publishers armed for e-book showdown

Mega-publisher HarperCollins has decided to limit the number of times library patrons can check out e-books to 26, a figure the publisher calculated is a year's worth of use. After that, the library would pay — again — for the right to circulate the e-book.

Seattle Times book editor

Digital Book Roadshow

The Seattle Public Library is hosting free, drop-in sessions at several branches in April and May to help patrons learn about e-books. Details: 206-386-4636 or www.spl.org.

Lit life |

When I was a child, I checked my favorite books out of the public library again and again. The leather, built-to-last binding of Walter Farley's "The Black Stallion" withstood dozens, maybe hundreds, of readings by horse-crazy little girls like me.

Today we live in an age of instant printing and e-books. A lot of this is good — information is more accessible than ever — but it's terra incognita for libraries, publishers and authors. Hence the current debate convulsing the library world about mega-publisher HarperCollins' recent decision to limit the number of times library patrons can check out e-books to 26, a figure the publisher calculated is a year's worth of use. After that, the library would pay — again — for the right to circulate the e-book.

Librarians are civilized people, but in an age of surging public library use and slashed budgets of same, many were not pleased. "No one tells a library they have to pull their books off the shelf after a certain number of circulations, so why should this be different?," one riled-up Massachusetts librarian told the trade magazine Library Journal. HarperCollins is a mammoth of the publishing world, with three dozen different imprints and divisions. Kirk Blankenship, electronic resources librarian for Seattle Public Library, says HarperCollins titles account for 22 percent of all the e-book checkouts at the library. E-books are the fastest-growing component of SPL circulation — use of the format has nearly doubled in the last year.

Librarians agree that in some ways, e-books are a great lending format. You can download them right off the website into one of several compatible e-readers (http://www.spl.org/default.asp?pageID=collection_digibooks). Libraries don't have to order multiple copies of best-sellers, then face disposal issues when the book is no longer "hot." They're great for technology titles, which are often rendered irrelevant within months of publication because the technological landscape changes so fast.

But that popularity and portability makes publishers nervous. Some, including Simon & Schuster and international publishing giant Macmillan, don't sell e-books to libraries at all. A HarperCollins spokesperson would not speak on the record about this issue, but a March 1 statement said in part: "Our prior e-book policy for libraries dates back almost 10 years to a time when the number of e-readers was too small to measure. It is projected that the installed base of e-reading devices domestically will reach nearly 40 million this year.

"We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book ecosystem, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors." The publisher says the second purchase would be cheaper, using the hardback/paperback price difference as a comparison.

At the moment, this virtual High Noon at the circulation desk is a standoff. A number of library boards across the country have voted to suspend purchases of HarperCollins e-books. "A lot of people are flat-out boycotting HarperCollins," says Blankenship. "In the near term, they won't see any financial gain from this." For the time being, SPL has slowed orders of new e-books from HarperCollins (the 26-checkout limit does not apply to HarperCollins titles already in the e-book catalog).

Blankenship believes there will be a compromise. There are a number of creative ways to resolve the dispute, he says; for example, HarperCollins could provide best-selling e-books at one price, but offer less popular books by "midlist" authors at another, lower price.

Bruce Adams, director of collection management services for the King County Library System, says the debate is actually a backhanded compliment to the library market: HarperCollins recognizes that it's growing and is grappling with its impact. For the time being, KCLS will continue to buy HarperCollins e-book titles as patron demand warrants.

If you look at checkout statistics for Seattle Public Library, it's clear that there are a lot of well-loved books in the system. Over the past three years, the average number of checkouts per book per year has been 23, but almost 300,000 books were checked out 26 times or more. And 6,759 circulating books for children and adults have been checked out 100 times or more.

Should a book cost the taxpayers more because it's better loved? Good question. Libraries and publishers are just beginning to come to terms with the answer.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@ seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/community/bookdrive.aspx

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