World of Words: Home truths About eBooks

The publishing industry is in some kind of spring flurry. In February this year, Amazon announced that, for the first month ever, their eBook sales outstripped paper sales.

Then, in an article syndicated by the New York Times in March, HarperCollins announced lending limits for e-library books in an article called “Now at the library: a battle over eBook pricing.”

Julie Ourom, director of Yukon Public Libraries, puts the story in perspective.


According to the “Now at the library” article, HarperCollins, the world’s second largest publisher of eBook titles, recently limited the number of times their books can be downloaded or “lent out”. The number of this limit: 26.

Based on constant lending for two-week periods, the licence would expire every year and need to be renewed. Reporter Julie Bosman, who regularly covers publishing stories for the Times, wrote that librarians felt “gobsmacked” and “agitated for very good reasons.”


In Yukon, eBook lending limitations have been a point of discussion for a couple of months, says Ourom. “Even before, with paper books, it was a publishing concern.”

Before the digital era, it was virtually impossible for publishers to track the number of times a specific title was checked out. Publishers suspect that readers who borrow or download “free” material don’t buy the printed word.

“The difference now is that publishers can do something about it,” says Ourom.

So can libraries, some of which dropped HarperCollins eBooks from their collections immediately.


Libraries obtain downloadable material through a library licensing agreement with a recognized agency. OverDrive is the most prominent one, distributing 500,000 eBooks from 1,000 publishers including Random House, HarperCollins, BBC Audiobooks America, Harlequin and Bloomsbury.

OverDrive chose to isolate HarperCollins from its Library Marketplace listing and create a separate catalogue for limited licenses.

“We did have the option to stop carrying or distributing HarperCollins eBooks,” says OverDrive CEO Steve Potash in a March 1 press release. “Instead we offer the option to make informed purchasing decisions.”

For OverDrive, digital reading on compatible devices is good business. To that end there’s a “White Paper to encourage library eBook lending” available on its website.

“Our advocacy efforts for libraries have been ongoing for most of the past decade,” writes Potash. “We are prompting publishers to consider less restrictive licensing for eBook and digital media lending.”


Ourom has been researching eBooks for Yukon Libraries. “It’s the way things are going and an exciting new opportunity that local readers have been asking for.”

Her response to industry concerns is telling.

“The reality is lots of books don’t circulate 26 times,” says Ourom. “Renewing licenses is not so different than now, when we buy an extra paper copy of a book to add to our collection after it’s won a Governor General’s Award.”

In general, publisher fears are ill-founded, Ourom comments.

“EBook borrowers are always buying books, periodicals, devices and downloads. Plus, libraries promote literacy and reading, regardless of the form, which is good for the industry as a whole.”

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