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On Boycotts and Readers’ Rights

Today on Twitter, LizB asked for a link to a post explaining the HarperCollins boycott, ALA bill of rights, readers rights, etc. and how this is different from other “don’t buys.” I don’t know if she found it, but I told her I’d give it a whirl. Here goes.

Initially, I was put off by the idea of a boycott. It seemed like denying patrons access to material based on our own interests. Libraries are quick to absorb cuts from outside forces without passing that pain onto our patrons. It’s our first instinct- to protect our members and preserve our services and make due with what we have. It works if we’re talking about a temporary cut to get us through lean times, but it falls apart when it becomes a lifestyle. It allows the public to think we’re fine without their help and it encourages a martyr attitude in library workers.

Librarians have long said that we need a seat at the table in the ebook debate, but we have yet to figure out how to take one. We’ve relied on other companies like Overdrive to do our negotiating for us. In some ways, this makes sense- Overdrive has a deal with publishers and we all have a deal with Overdrive. It’s sort like collective bargaining, except when it’s not. Librarians have railed against DRM and restrictive licensing agreements, but calls for boycotts have not been heeded. We’re stuck in the middle – boycotting DRM meant boycotting ebooks for many libraries. Helplessness was the primary feeling expressed.

Meanwhile, publishers were facing declining sales and ebooks raised the specter of pirated books. Publishing is a business and after watching the music and movie business struggle for years, publishers were understandably nervous. Authors, too. Libraries want to make everyone happy in a scary market – we want authors to make money, we want publishers to sell us stuff, we want our patrons to be happy and we want our communities to value their libraries. But you can’t get on an elevator these days without being asked if libraries are going to close once books go digital. And everyone’s had a few scary budget seasons.

This is all an oversimplification, of course, but the point is that everyone from authors to publishers to librarians to booksellers is trying to figure out how to ride the ebook wave without drowning. So far, the answer has been to treat ebooks as much like print as possible – an ebook can be checked out by one person for a set period of time. It expires, so no overdue charges, which makes patrons happy and libraries that depend on fines for income nervous. From the publisher’s perspective, it’s not like print at all, because it never falls apart. There’s no wear and tear. From the library perspective, it’s not like print at all because it’s only viable for a certain percentage of our patrons and we don’t have any of our normal first-sale doctrine rights. We can’t sell a gently used extra in our booksales, people can’t donate their old copies to us, and let’s not even talk about bookgroups and ILL.

HarperCollins has this idea to essentially impose an annual fee on their ebook titles. 26 circulations at 2 weeks a circ is about a year of constant use. This makes it sort of more like a print book for them and not at all like a print book to libraries. But I’m glad they’re trying something (though I’d prefer they try tiered pricing), because we needed to have the discussion we’re all having now.

So, a boycott was hatched. This is not normally our thing. Librarians don’t block access, we throw our doors open as wide as we can afford to. Telling our patrons we wouldn’t be getting  a book because we don’t like a publisher policy isn’t our style. It feels a little icky. The Library Bill of Rights is all about ensuring access and challenging censorship. We buy stuff we don’t personally or professionally like all the time. How is this different?

I think we have the wrong imagery in mind when we talk about this boycott. This isn’t a picket line demanding that HarperCollins acquiesce to our demands. This is a tactic. It feels unfamiliar because we never vote with our wallets. As consumers, we do this all the time. Groups organize boycotts to get companies to change their advertising or corporate policy and the two sides come to an agreement and then we can shop at Target again. As librarians, we don’t really have enough money to use it as a bargaining chip. But we’re trying it with this boycott. The demand isn’t to go back to the way things were, because that isn’t going to work for anyone. It’s to come together to find a new solution that will help us all.

Ebooks aren’t our bread and butter… yet. We are all of us standing on the edge of a major sea change in publishing, reading, and writing. The annual fee structure isn’t good for libraries or their patrons and we have a responsibility to our members and our funders to fight for a model that we can live with. Right now, this is a small percentage of our circulation, but it’s only going to grow. This is the ground floor and we have to build something that won’t collapse on top of us. This is about our readers’ rights in the long haul.

This isn’t a boycott of HarperCollins indefinitely. This isn’t even going to block library patrons’ access to these materials (we’re certainly not the only ebook game in town and I don’t think everyone has said they’d stop buying print versions of HarperCollins books). This is a chance to involve the early ebook adopters that use the library in shaping how the ebook revolution turns out. As Karen Schneider said on twitter today: this isn’t asking for a divorce, it’s asking for a conversation.

I’d like to think that HarperCollins put this policy out there as an opening move. Until now, libraryland’s response to ebook restrictions has been to prevaricate, form committees, and worry. The boycott of HarperCollins is a resounding and clear response to a proposal that will hurt libraries and readers.

Liz asked how this related to the ALA bill of rights. The boycott isn’t about the content of the materials, which is the focus of the ALA Bill of Rights, it’s about the price. Libraries always make decisions based on price. I have told patrons that while I would love to buy the book they asked for, it simply costs too much. I’m sure we’d all love to buy ebooks from all of the big publishers (including the two that don’t sell ebooks to libraries), but the cost of this policy is simply too high.

New things are messy. Ebooks are new, they’re messy for everyone involved. Publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, and readers have to slog through the messy beginnings together. This boycott isn’t designed to punish HarperCollins for trying to come up with a solution, it’s a megaphone for libraries to advocate for ourselves and our members while the ebook world is still fresh and malleable. No one wants to infringe on readers’ rights, least of all librarians. The proposed boycott is an attempt to protect those rights while we still can.


19 comments for “On Boycotts and Readers’ Rights”

  1. I am glad to read this. Something you wrote here really resonated with me:

    “Until now, libraryland’s response to ebook restrictions has been to prevaricate, form committees, and worry.”

    I still see people responding the same way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that response, especially if it effects change. But clearly it’s not effecting change. I would love to know WHO in libraryland is gathering the Big Six publishers at the table with librarians. WHO? I hear that “we would be better off taking a measured approach,” but WHO exactly is taking that measured approach? I’m tired of waiting on committees and resolutions that never materialize. So I’m doing what I can do, and that means boycotting.

    I also worry that people will spend time getting caught up in a “Boycott vs. No Boycott” debate. You’re exactly right – as a consumer I put my money where my mouth is all the time. But I don’t judge others for not spending their money the same way I do, and I don’t expect everyone to share my beliefs. I wish people weren’t so eager to say “A boycott is wrong.” I think framing it that way only makes us weaker by dividing us and marginalizing us.

    Posted by Jen Waller | February 28, 2011, 8:41 pm
  2. Thanks for writing this Kate. Here are some of my questions/issues with the boycott

    Say HC does pay attention to it? Say they want to start a discussion, who do they contact? The organizers of the boycott? AlA? Who is our spokes person? Who gets to speak for ALL of us?

    Even, what are our terms? Meaning if HC does X we’ll stop the boycott? Removes the 26 check-out limit? DRM is still crappy cumbersome and clunky. Shouldn’t we ask for more? What about Simon & Schuster and MacMillan who don’t even allow libraries to purchase/lease their ebooks?

    of course you can read more on my post about it :-)

    Posted by Bobbi | March 1, 2011, 6:23 am
  3. Jen, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head- the boycott is the result of major frustration with feeling helpless. I agree – a boycott doesn’t have to be uniform or universal. It’s a tactic. Will HC feel some kind of financial sting from this? Probably not – libraries aren’t a big part of their total revenue, boycott or no. Again, it’s not a picket line, it’s libraries collectively saying that these terms aren’t financially viable for them.

    Bobbi, thanks for the link to your post. We should ask for more! You’re right – DRM is not going to work for any of us in the long term. I share your reservations about a boycott, especially when we talk about extending it to print, book lists, storytimes, etc. I don’t think we need to have shared terms or a single spokesperson. This isn’t a picket line – it’s a megaphone for libraries who feel that agreeing to the annual fee structure is fiscally irresponsible.

    Posted by kate | March 1, 2011, 10:06 am
  4. Perhaps, given the library share of the publishing market–noted at about 4.5% in this blogpost
    a boycott may not be the wisest thing to do. Telling our soon to be annoyed patronage may be. Libraries should keep out of this little boycott other than to express outrage at being attacked again–this time from the very industry we helped to build.

    Posted by Virginia Roberts | March 1, 2011, 5:30 pm
  5. Virginia, libraries have no financial leverage. I don’t think anyone went into the idea of a boycott thinking we’d actually cause any financial distress to publishers.

    I really like Sarah’s post and I’m glad she crunched the numbers. Since then, I’ve seen several other figures, all smaller than her 4.5%. We don’t have any economic power.

    But I disagree that this is an economic boycott. Why would our patrons be annoyed unless we held back on buying HC ebooks? I’m not sure a boycott will work for other reasons – it’s not like patrons have been banging down the doors of the two publishers who don’t sell ebooks to libraries demanding that they work with us.

    Whenever I buy materials (not a big part of my current job, but it has been in the past), I think to myself, “Can I look the funders of this library in the eyes and say that I did the best I could to be a responsible steward of their money?” Accepting these terms would not let me do that. For me, that’s what the boycott is about.

    Honestly, I’m not even angry. Or surprised. Part of me looks at this and starts running over my librarian skill-set and thinking about how I can market those skills to other fields, because I don’t see how we’re going to even have “librarians” in 20 years. But the bigger, better part of me thinks that we have to prove our worth not in dollars, but in cultural relevance (and, uh, free marketing for publishers’ products) and value to our communities.

    You’re right that we need to involve our patrons. We need them to convey to everyone – publishers to politicians – what libraries are worth.

    Posted by kate | March 1, 2011, 6:54 pm
  6. [...] On Boycotts and Readers’ Rights by Kate Sheehan (added 3.2.2011 5:45am est) [...]

    Posted by Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back | Librarian by Day | March 2, 2011, 6:22 am
  7. [...] Loose Cannon Librarian ? On Boycotts and Readers’ Rights [...]

    Posted by Library Views ????? » ???????? HarperCollins | March 2, 2011, 6:34 am
  8. [...] On Boycotts and Readers’ RightsLoose Cannon Librarian | [...]

    Posted by Is A Boycott of HarperCollins The Right Course of Action at This Time? #hcod #ebookrights | Librarian by Day | March 2, 2011, 8:39 am
  9. [...] Bonfield and Gabriel Farrel launched a project, Boycott HarperCollins. The Loose Cannon Librarian sums up the rationale for joining the boycott as well as I could state it, and this week I’m too pushed to do more [...]

    Posted by Free Range Librarian › The Harper Collins Boycott: Breathing Space for Negotiation | March 2, 2011, 11:12 am
  10. No body has commented on where the authors stand who provide their material to Harper Collins. Are the authors in the business only to make as much money as they can or do they really like thier fan base. Many areas of the country do not have fans that can afford to buy every E-book that they like. Thus libraies come to their aid. This whole issue comes down to the Have’s have, and the Have Not’s don’t.

    Posted by David Mixdorf | March 2, 2011, 2:42 pm
  11. [...] Damage control comes in the form of open letters from OverDrive and HarperCollins. There has been a call for a boycott. Bobbi Newman, one of the first to jump on the story, is maintaining a list of news [...]

    Posted by Thursday Threads: HarperCollins Ebook Terms, Internet Archive Ebook Sharing, Future of Collections | Disruptive Library Technology Jester | March 2, 2011, 10:40 pm
  12. A quick note on your aside that an e-book “expires, so no overdue charges, which makes patrons happy and libraries that depend on fines for income nervous.” I can’t imagine many libraries really regard fines as an important source of income, but those that do: shame on you. Viewing fines as a revenue source is a perversion. The legitimate purpose of fines is to provide an incentive that books are returned to circulation promptly so others may use them. Smart librarians should do everything possible to create a good experience for patrons—and that includes an email alert before a book is due, to encourage its return or renewal, rather than after the material overdue, which would maximize income from fines. Librarians should aim for $0 fine income and 100% on-time returns. I realize this is off your main point, but I couldn’t let this pass.

    Posted by Mark | March 3, 2011, 3:16 pm
  13. I think that using our collective barganing is a worthwhile tactic. When we say that we’re against HarperCollins or DRM, we’re not opposed to access–we’re opposed to restrictive systems for reading. We’re working for our patrons and asserting that we won’t spend (their) money on platforms that restrict their rights and ability to read. The boycotts *are* about accessibility, in that they are working against restrictive end user license agreements that stand in the way of access.

    You’re right that everyone is trying to figure out how ebooks will function right now. I hope that our anti-DRM campaigns can also function as an educational movement to help readers understand the current (restrictive) systems and to help them to decide what they want the future of ebooks to look like.

    Librarians should help represent readers–who, in my experience, think that it’s unacceptable that they can’t print, download, and transfer digital files just because they happen to be ebooks.

    Posted by Alycia | March 7, 2011, 10:29 am
  14. There is one aspect of this that I don’t think gets brought up enough. Public libraries are trustees of public funds. Most of us are funded, in one way or another by public taxes, and I believe we have an obligation to use that money responsibly. In this case, I think refusing to do business with a company that demands we suddenly accept a nonstandard and onerous financial arrangement falls within that obligation.

    Posted by Zen Librarian | March 7, 2011, 7:47 pm
  15. [...] mainly because what I have to say is negative, and doesn’t add much to what others already said. But I noticed a couple things in the last few days that I wanted to [...]

    Posted by Swiss Army Librarian » A Few Notes on the Current State of Ebooks :: Brian Herzog | March 8, 2011, 8:24 am
  16. [...] Gabriel Farrel launched a project, Boycott HarperCollins. Kate over at the Loose Cannon Librarian sums up the rationale for joining the boycott as well as I could state it, and this week I’m too pushed to do more [...]

    Posted by Harper Collins…ugh | March 21, 2011, 1:41 pm
  17. I think David above has made a point that we ought to invest some effort into. As librarians we may not have much leverage with HarperCollins, but Stephen King probably does. Someone (again, the question is who, and representing what organization) should be enlisting HC authors to voice some outrage. The guy who writes the Lemony Snicket books, and makes HC a bucket of money, is going to have his calls returned.

    Posted by Katherine | March 29, 2011, 9:04 am
  18. [...] boycott site was started by several librarians, which provides a sample letter. As librarian Kate Sheehan blogged: “This boycott isn’t designed to punish HarperCollins for trying to come up with a solution, [...]

    Posted by Library Ebook Lending Under Attack | Product Sourcing - Industrial News | April 4, 2011, 7:19 am


    GOD ALONE CAN HELP — MAKE THIS A MATTER OF PRAYER — IT HAS SUCH far-reaching possible effects!!!!

    Posted by Mrs..Ruth Lavele Bennett | May 5, 2011, 10:12 pm

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