Self-destructing ebooks: paper's fragility is a bug, not a feature

My new Guardian column, "Ebooks: durability is a feature, not a bug," is about HarperCollins's decision to limit library checkouts of its ebooks to 26, whereupon the books self-destruct. I argue that it's wrong to argue about whether print books last for more or less than 26 checkouts -- the important thing to recognize is that the perishability of a print book is not a feature that we should seek to replicate in successive media.
Now, in point of fact, many ordinary trade books circulate far more than 26 times before they're ready for the discard pile. If a group of untrained school kids working as part-time pages can keep a copy of the Toronto Star in readable shape for 30 days' worth of several-times-per-day usage, then it's certainly the case that the skilled gluepot ninjas working behind the counter at your local library can easily keep a book patched up and running around the course for a lot more than 26 circuits. Indeed, the HarperCollins editions of my own books are superb and robust examples of the bookbinder's art (take note!), and judging from the comments of outraged librarians, it's common for HarperCollins printed volumes to stay in circulation for a very long time indeed.

But this is the wrong thing to argue about. Whether a HarperCollins book has the circulatory vigour to cope with 26 checkouts or 200, it's bizarre to argue that this finite durability is a feature that we should carefully import into new media. It would be like assuming the contractual obligation to attack the microfilm with nail-scissors every time someone looked up an old article, to simulate the damage that might have been done by our careless patrons to the newsprint that had once borne it.

Ebooks: durability is a feature, not a bug

(Image: Library Microfilm Reader & Printer, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from cushinglibrary's photostream)


  1. At some level, this highlights and makes explicit the simple fact that you never OWN an e-book, you just lease access. When somebody purchases the physical embodyment of a copyrighted work, the rights of the copyright owner and the copy owner* are balanced by copyright law. After such a “first sale,” the copyright holder has much less say in further distribution. I have no problem with HC offering this deal to libraries, but I see little reason for them to accept it. Even if you grant that they are trying to set their “lease rate” and terms such that the price and durability it is equivalant to a purchase, they are setting an upper limit equal to the average. The nature of library collections is that some circulate many times, some very little and some fall appart.

    *I prefer the term “copy owner” to user since it makes it clear that we are talking about balancing two differen property rights. Absent the special limitations granted by copyright law, you would be free to do what you wanted to a copy that you owned.

    1. And when I bitch to my friends about why I hate “DVD” so much they just don’t understand…

  2. We have books in museums and libraries that are hundreds of years old, e-books have yet to prove their durability on that scale. I am not opposed to e-books, I think it’s definitely cool that you can carry around a small library on a device the size of a notepad, but I always question the idea that digital media is forever, since a lot of compact discs from the 80’s (remember the “perfect sound forever” sales pitch?) have experienced digital rot, and DAT recordings I made in the early 90’s have experienced drop-outs. If a book gets wet or dropped or run over by a car you can still read it, whereas a Kindle or iPad is a device with lots of parts, any of which can go bad and make the device fail; a book missing a page can still be read, a laptop with a busted hard drive is junk.

    It all depends on how you define “finite durability.”

    1. I’ve been thinking along similar lines, ill lich. I think HarperCollins’ biggest mistake here was to try to address a problem that won’t actually exist. Technology constantly changes and evolves, and the chances of us using the same devices or even file formats for enough time to damage business is roughly nil. It would be like the game makers trying to charge me a subscription for Dig Dug on the Commodore 64 because they were afraid I’d get unlimited use out of it forever.

    2. In theory, durability is one of the strengths of digital media. Every time someone looks at an ebook, they are inherently copying it in some way. You can copy that copy as many times as you want without losing any quality, since it’s all defined in discrete, digital bits. Unfortunately, the media companies are intent on taking all the disadvantages of digital media and all the disadvantages of physical media and sticking them in one place.

      So, expect that goodness I just described to not happen. And that will be a problem: a single computer storage device is an incredibly fagile thing. These are only reliable when they work together. An EMP (which can arrive courtesy of our sun or crazy people with bombs) could wipe out anything that doesn’t have a hard copy or a good backup inside a well shielded container. If “copying” digital media is discouraged, we are jeopardizing all of that information in the future.

  3. Just another company to add to my boycott list. It’s up to us, the consumers, to effect the change we want. Our power is our dollar. If you buy, you support.

  4. I hate accidentally erasing the contents of my bookshelf with a magnet. I wasn’t too upset, they won’t open because they were given to me by my grandfather.

    I learned to read by expanding my usable alphabet to 1112064 characters, but it’s WAY HARDER than Cantonese. And so many different ones to learn (.azw took me almost a year, even with Rosetta Stone ‘Proprietary Compression Edition”)

    Just kidding, I love my ebook. But leaving my entire library at work because I was in a rush to get home is always frustrating.

  5. When books by popular authors hit our library system, they regularly have something like 400 people reserving them. The library is only going to purchase four copies at most. The books damn well better last more than 26 checkouts.

  6. Don’t expect logic to play any part in this matter. The sole “logic” that interests commercial production and marketing has for some decades been neither quality nor longevity but planned obsolescence: the certainty that what you buy will soon go into our landfills as you go back to some producer to buy a replacement (no producer even seriously expects customer loyalty because they have chosen not to deserve it). Compare even a hardback’s construction in recent years to what it once was and you will realize that you are paying more for less and that it will require repair or replacement much sooner under library use.

    In spite of advertising rhetoric, whenever you hear “quality” you should know that that is inconsistent with our learned consumer culture that is built around instant gratification and moving on to the next shiny thing that is dangled before our eyes.

    The current contract with individuals who buy an ebook assures them that they can re-access that volume at any time they request at no additional cost. How long will this be the case? It is not surprising that a publisher would put a use limit on libraries since that move is somewhat screened from the end-reader’s direct involvement – if they get away with it you can be sure your rights to what you buy will someday be limited also: read it now or lose it!

  7. I believe publishers like HarperCollins are reacting in fear. The business model they have ridden to the top is moving into a time of change, and like anyone who can see their job, their very way of life, being usurped by something new. They are doing anything they can think of, try every way possible to justify that place in the ecosystem.
    With eBooks the need for middle men like HarperCollins is going away. Most authors will need some sort of middle man to advertise, display and sale their product. The majority will also need the services of editors and proof readers.

    This quote from must terrify the big publishing houses. 

    “Amanda Hocking is the best-selling “indie” novelist on the Kindle store, reports Novelr, with around 100,000 copies of her 10 e-books selling each month. Unlike traditional book deals, however, Hocking keeps a whopping 70 percent of revenue earned from her books, which sell for $0.99 to $2.99 apiece. (Amazon keeps the other 30 percent.)”

    Big publishing houses are going to have to adjust and fit into new business models of some kind.

  8. Just the latest set of people trying to ignore the fact that scarcity of already created information does not exist in the Datasphere.

  9. I definitely agree that the emerging issue is “do you want to own your books or license them?” Many people are fine with eBook arrangements. IMHO, the arguments for analog vs. digital book formats have been played out ad nauseum. The winning format will be chosen in the traditional manner, with wallets. However, there may be room for both for quite some time.

    One down side if eBooks take over is the demise of the used book market, which affects libraries too. Despite the general decline of binding quality, books last a lot longer than 26 uses. Even so, our new copy of James Patterson’s best seller will be the first book to wear out. By the time it does, demand will have waned, but the library will have received more than enough donated copies to fill demand, which are legal to add to the collection.

    I think the big concern of librarians (speaking as one) is if HarperCollins business practice is played out as a worst case scenario, it could eventually hobble the shared purchase power, shared ownership, and shared usage that have made libraries feasible. We have applied our shared usage model to our eBook collections. In many cases, libraries that subscribe to the eBook provider in question, OverDrive, have pooled their money and shared a subscription. The publishers are trying to drive the market towards a per-use model, and who can blame them? What might shock them is nimble small publishers or self publishers who are able to make inroads into their market.

    Whatever the outcome, there is a lot to shake out in the eBook market. For one, it is currently splintered. Also, we are going to see some significant debate over copyright. Revisions are inevitable, and will have consequences that reach a lot further than libraries. I just hope we don’t end up with a system like they have in Europe where libraries pay a “public lending right” for the privilege to lend a book out.

    1. Well yes. Once you’re at a per-use pricing model, there’s little ECONOMIC (as opposed to social, or public policy) reasons for public libraries. With a conventional book, libraries have a much lower per-use cost compared with bookstores. So just as roads are more efficient than driveways because more people use them, library books are more efficient than personal copies.

      As for durablility, just as with books, it is broad distribution that helps to ensure the continued existance/availability of a particular work. There are any number of calamities that can befall either one, but having copies in many places is a good thing, it also helps to prevent stuff from falling down a 1984-ish memory hole.

  10. The pirate argument is we’re all going to end up reading drm-free ebooks anyways, just illegally. This means people want drm free ebooks, and won’t someone come along and “monetize” that “market segment” eventually? If so, drm free ebooks are a product we will eventually see.

    Maybe it’s possible the publishers know this, have done the math, and realized that they can still make more money i) financing this crippleware, ii) selling and re-selling crippled ebooks, all the while iii) dealing with some backlash and piracy from savvy consumers. These people are probably consciously monetizing the slide down to an equilibrium price for drm-free products with schemes like this, knowing full well it can’t last forever.

    At least, that’s what I hope they’re doing.

  11. Imagine, the digital equivalent of newsprint. Turns brown and quickly fragments into dust. What a company image. They must have an ex Detroit automaker setting policy.

  12. Vote with your money.

    Never pay for DRM products.

    No exceptions.

    What if Euclid’s Elements had be DRMed?

    What if the Constitution was copyrighted and you weren’t allowed to read it?

  13. DRM for books is as deplorable as it is maniacal.
    All attempts by corporate oligarchs to cripple information delivery are futile and history will brand them as such.

  14. The title of this post is “paper’s fragility a bug, not a feature.”

    I’m not sure this is true. Many books are printed on paper that is intentionally not designed to last for long durations (the oldest books we have are not written on modern paper…and often written on parchment skins).

    Modern paper is designed to be disposable. And there are good reasons for books to be disposable beyond simply a company’s desire to sell another copy (at the very least, it makes it easier to get rid of books that are no longer needed or useful).

    That being said, self-destructing text files does seem absurd. It would make more sense for Harper Collins to simply charge public institutions a yearly subscription fee for access to their complete library, or perhaps run different subscription plans for different collections in the Harper Collins library of books.

Comments are closed.