Is A Boycott of HarperCollins The Right Course of Action at This Time? #hcod #ebookrights

In case you haven’t seen it, there is a new site organizing a boycott of HarperCollins. Conversations about this have popped up on Twitter, Facebook and in the comments of my original post about the HarperCollines Fiasco, so  I thought I’d provide a venue for discussion just about this issue.

I’m inclined to agree with Toby Greenwalt on this one

But I would argue that the picket line isn’t the place for this battle. Rather, I think we need to take this struggle to the boardroom.

I’m concerned that boycotting now may make us look hysterical or irrational, not an image we want to take to a negotiation. There may come a time when boycotting is the way to go, I’m just not sure its now.

But I want to know what you think.  Should we be boycotting? If not now, when? What should we be doing?

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More Thoughts on the Boycott:

34 thoughts on “Is A Boycott of HarperCollins The Right Course of Action at This Time? #hcod #ebookrights

  1. I’m not sure boycotting is the right action. However, I do appreciate the quick advocacy action and the fact that this is making major news circles. This isn’t another “libraries take a hit and roll over”.

    I’m not sure how effective this is or what the long term solutions are. If you look at regular library circulation and ebook library circulation, 26 check-out limit is better than a one year limit which may have been HC’s original decision.


  2. Agreed. Boycotting means we get to hold up a sign outside the building. But things like petitions, reasons emails and blog posts and articles, and a sustained logical approach to discussion and framing on this issue gets us in the door, talking about future strategy and direction.

    Want to be inside or outside? I want to be inside.


    1. I would like to be inside as well, but if nothing compels them to talk then what? Right now they can sit on their hands and do nothing. If we can’t convince them of the economics of the issue, they won’t sit down with us, they won’t care.


      1. Yep – a boycott is done last, when negotiations have failed. We haven’t even started talking yet – honestly, for the most part, librarians have just passively sat by and paid whatever OverDrive asked for (sign on the dotted line) until now.

        My take, anyway. I’m glad there are so many initiatives right now, finally trying to tackle this issue – becasue it really needs tackling!


  3. To me it seems that librarians have a problem with structure, agency, and proximate causation. HarperCollins is doing what corporations do: maximizing profit (at least in the short term), yet they are seen as evil. What about DRM and the current copyright regime? To me DRM and US copyright law is what caused this. A rapacious corporation is not exactly “man bites dog” news. Let’s try to sit down with HC and work towards a solution. Concurrently, let’s try to get rid of DRM, or obtain a library exemption.


    1. Jake – you’re right let’s sit down and work towards a solution. Unfortunately HC made these decisions without including libraries. We want to be part of the discussion. We want to be part of the solution.


  4. Boycotting may work in the short term but it doesn’t work long term. Punishing this one publisher is also a risk….what about MacMillan and Simon and Schuster and all the others? I understand theses two generally don’t offer ebooks that work with libraries…why would they now after what Harper Collins has had to deal with?

    This isn’t exactly a new issue- libraries have been purchasing e-journals and ebooks for more than 10 years at this point. I’m an E-Resources and Serials Librarian in an academic library (I know its different than public but not as much as you’d think!) and I can tell you that publishers have struggled and still struggle over the “right” model where we get the content our users want in a way users/librarians want it and the publisher still makes a profit. Look at the serials crisis…is it over?…not by a long shot. Granted the open access movement is a good one for scholarly content. But – be careful what you wish for….if all ebooks were free- then publishers and libraries are out of work….or is that really true? Maybe libraries would have plenty of other things to do because we aren’t all about content- right?

    I think the thing missing from most of the posts I’ve seen out there so far is librarians developing a solution and offering ideas for a model that may work. Why? Well it’s really hard to come up with a model/pricing structure that works for all these parties. This is broader than DRM…we’re talking about pricing, licensing, perpetual access (ha!) among other things. I laugh at the idea of perpetual access because really…what is it exactly? Isn’t it the running joke these days? How do publishers make money on it? Right now when perpetual access is delivered we get things like flash drives, pdfs by email, whole computer hard drives….hmmm….wonder if they are going to work in 5, 10, 15 years and beyond….probably not.

    Publishers aren’t evil really (as much as sometimes I truly think they seem that way). Publishers are trying to do their jobs- they publish content for a profit. The profit isn’t much- if it were- we’d already be seeing a lot of publishers out there suing people who provide torrents/pirated ebooks. There is some…but not much really.

    For a long time libraries have owned stuff…I can tell you that 90% or more of my materials budget is e-resources (including databases, e-journals, ebooks, etc.) we don’t own a whole heck of a lot but we sure do license a lot of things. It’s about access- we pay for access. I’d much rather see more models where libraries only pay for what we and our users use…this is a growing area.

    This is also where I think Eric Hellman is onto something. I think libraries- all libraries- really need to think about what makes us valuable. Personally I think of librarians as being those who connect our users to information- in whatever form that may be. It could be a lot of things. At the end of the day- rather than put all of our collective efforts in being angry at the publishers and boycotting, etc. What if someone comes up with a model and pricing that work for both sides? What if someone starts a group of some sort that blends librarians and publishers so that this particular issue can be worked out? The North American Serials Interest Group and the Charleston Conference both do this now and have been for some time- publishers, librarians and vendors all talk about these issues at one conference. Maybe it needs to grow and get more public librarians and publishers of bestsellers more heavily involved?

    Meanwhile- everyone else can focus on what makes libraries valuable (unique content, services, programming, library as place, etc.). I just think the ebook issue is one we may not win and if we don’t- then what happens?

    I’m so proud to be a librarian and to see this passion come from so many in our profession…but I really want to see it directed in the best, most effective place possible and I’m just not sure the boycott of this one publisher is it.


  5. I initially thought a boycott wasn’t the right course of action. Over the weekend I did a lot of thinking and a lot of acting (primarily writing to authors represented by HarperCollins). I am now of the mindset that a boycott is just one prong in a more organized, sustained approach. A boycott is better than doing nothing.

    I absolutely do not think a boycott means we “hold up a sign outside the building.” A boycott is a means for me to decide where to spend my money and to put my money where my mouth is. For ME it’s about taking personal responsibility.

    The issue is way bigger than HC, for sure. If nothing else, I’m glad HC’s increased restrictions to access got people talking. I just hope the situation will be used as a catalyst. I see nothing wrong with people “shifting their funding” (a great phrase Justin Hoenke used instead of “boycott”) WHILE they act on other fronts. ‘Cause what do we accomplish by not shifting our funding? More of the same, I’m afraid.

    I really don’t see this as “boycott or not boycott.” I see it as “boycott as we continue to work on the issues.” It shouldn’t be a single-strategy approach. And doing something (a funding shift) is way better than doing nothing.


    1. I agree with you Jen. This isn’t the beginning and end of the discussion. We are already on the outside if the publisher and vendor can decide this for us. We aren’t in the board room. The only power we have is the power of the purse. If we don’t like it, we don’t buy.


    2. This is how I see it. I think the calls for “boycott” are more about reminding librarians that we can still vote with our budgets; we don’t have to roll over and keep buying HC because “that’s how it is.” Collectively, we can and *should* refuse to invest our limited funds in products that are bad for libraries and our patrons in the long-term.


    3. Jen,very much agree with your position. There is not just one best way. If the “B” word leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then don’t do it. For those of us who were active in the 1960s, boycotts were one way to have a voice when you had few or no bargaining chips. People say, but we don’t want to upset the publishers. B— S—! How considerate were they of libraries, their so-called “partners.” How considerate was Overdrive of the libraries, their so-called “partners.” We are not partners. There is no need to call for a national, official boycott by anyone or any group. I think each library and consortia has to ask when it gets ready to spend the bucks: Is a HarperCollins ebook the best investment I can make right now with my shrinking budget or shall I delay my HC purchase indefinitely to some other time. After all, the book will disappear after 26 circs. If you don’t like the “B” word then just call it something else, like prioritizing.


  6. While I agree with both sides of the argument, I do however want to make a point. Much like my friends to the North (Wisconsin), communication is a two-way street. Should HC desired a conversation before make such a move, they surely knew where to find us. Moreover, I have not seen or received a response from them yet.

    One area I prefer to focus my energies it in the area of shopping locally, perhaps this can be part of the larger discussion.

    The difficulty with the situation at hand is that libraries are most likely to emerge a loser. I think we would best focus our energies and time on situations in which we at least have a chance of emerging a winner. As I ponder all the possible outcomes (at least likely ones) in the case of HarperCollins, I don’t really see a winning solution.

    Just my two cents:)


    1. They did communicate with the party they perceive as speaking for libraries – OverDrive. Which is who they’ll communicate IF they decide to renegotiate this 26 check out limit. Have we told OverDrive what we want? What are our demands? Is OverDrive who we wan negotiating on our behalf?


  7. I see no need to worry about being considered hysterical for being in favor of a boycott. Who are your judges?

    Does HarperCollins worry about being perceived as greedy and hurting of all institutions a public library?

    HarperCollins is a publishing company owned by News Corporation, which is the world’s third-largest media conglomerate, and whom do we have?

    They are rich, organized with corporate lawyers and they have little more regard for us than a dealer does to a junky and how far does a junky get with their dealer in negotiations?

    You can shame them on twitter, but I don’t think they’ll care.

    I don’t see what we can negotiate over other than saying we’ll mess with your bottom line.


  8. I think the whole question of “boycott” is beside the point. How many libraries can afford to buy HarperCollins ebooks on these terms? Make your purchasing decisions on what makes sense for your users, including not buying short-term, over-priced rentals _because_ they are too expensive and have no durability, and then HarperCollins can decide if it’s really worth the sales hit.

    Also make it clear to Overdrive that in future this is something in which libraries want their viewpoint represented and presented to the publishers when negotiating terms.


  9. A library boycott is a drop in the hat to HC. That wont hurt. I like the idea that there’s a dialog between publishers, vendors and libraries? My question there is, where’s the author? Where’s the prime source?
    This has to be addressed in the way that all parties involved – libraries, author, publisher, vendor can see a way to get the product to the people. Consumers that actually buy products will purchase material. It will be the work of those involved to realize that the best interest evolves everyone. As it stands now, the parent company of publishers see a losing game in publishing, authors aren’t getting exposed, and libraries are floundering about in a sea of decreasing funds. Who wins in this scenario?
    I suggest redevelop the relationship between the author and the library and bypass the publisher, the vendor (overdrive) and create something new. Groundswell a new beginning from the author to the reader.


  10. Part of my issue with the boycott is this – 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?


    1. There is no point in worrying about Simon & Schuster or MacMillan. They don’t want to do business with libraries; that’s their right and we can’t make them.

      HarperCollins apparently still wants library business, but they’ve come up with clever new terms that aren’t economically viable for libraries. There’s something to work with.

      As for who they negotiate with: Overdrive. That’s who they’re going to go to if they notice a drop-off in sales and are disturbed by it. That’s why I said we have to make the case to Overdrive: Overdrive needs to understand that silly terms like very short expiring licenses and third-party access to patron data that’s probably illegal aren’t feasible for libraries and aren’t in the publishers’ long-term best interests either, and be prepared to make that case. If publishers come to them with major changes in terms, they need to reach out to the library community and not let the new terms come as a complete surprise after they’re a done deal.

      DRM is a problem, but I think in this context, it’s a separate problem. It’s a problem with the entire publishing industry, and if HarperCollins is so worried about lost sales that they’ve come up with this 26-circs limit, they’re not going to go all the way and be the first publisher to eliminate DRM. Let’s defeat the idea of circ limits, first.


      1. Simon & Schuster and MacMillan are doing business with libraries, they are selling us print books. They are refusing to sell/lease us ebooks. Which means we are aren’t able to offer their titles in one of our formats. That is a problem.

        Do we really want OverDrive negotiating for libraries? Don’t get me wrong I think highly of them, but they are a vendor in business to make money. Have we even told them what we want? Its from OverDrive that we have the clunky cumbersome system we have now. Yes its the best they can offer on the publishers terms but its still bad.

        Maybe if we’d addressed the DRM problems first we wouldn’t be dealing with the 16 limit now. Maybe if we’d stood up the when the first crappy deal was handed to us we wouldn’t be in this situation. I think if we’re going to stand up we stand up all the way.


    1. @librarianbyday Funnily enough was going to write a similar post on this topic this afternoon. Not convinced boycott is a good idea.


  11. Aw C’mon here folks:

    Just place yourself in the “owner’s” position and think about it. You have bought the right to publish a book from the author. You own the copyright. This is your property. You did this in order to sell as many copies of this and make as much money out of it as possible. You don’t want to give your rights away to libraries, so you need a reasonable model for how to allow public libraries to purchase and lend this electronic book to their users. That’s when you determine that selling an electronic copy “forever” is not a wise thing to do. In electronic form a book never wears out, never gets lost, and is now available to the library to loan forever. If the library has a lot of demand, they can purchase more copies since the book can only be loaned to one person at a time.

    Now back to the library’s point of view. We would ideally like to purchase the book and be able to lend an unlimited amount of copies to whomever we want and as often as we want. Universal access. If that is the model, let’s just set up a statewide or national purchasing center, buy one electronic copy and have it available to everyone. But of course, this model is not feasible – now enter the attorneys and copyright experts and all is in a tangle.

    How do we compromise with a sensible solution here? Harper Collins has set up what I believe is a pretty good deal. They will “rent” this book to the library at just about $1.00 per use. At the end of the use period the book can either be deleted from the library’s inventory or it can be “renewed” for another 28 uses. The library signs up with OverDrive to provide the service without the library having to house anything on its own computers. The book is out there in the cloud to be loaned to a library user. And the library is getting smiles from their users!

    Now, let’s just get OverDrive to figure out a simple way to help us charge each user at $.99 for each book borrowed. That way we can help libraries generate some sorely needed revenue. As a Nook user I would jump up and down at the chance to get a book for three weeks for $.99. And even Amazon cannot make a profit at this level (at least I don’t think they could).

    If you buy this very same book in print, it has to dance through ordering, cataloging, processing, take up space on a shelf, be heated, air-conditioned, checked out and back in 100 times (maybe by our expensive book sorting equipment), be delivered across town or to the next library or half way across the state, then finally de-accesioned, sold by the Friends… Was it “cheaper” to have the real McCoy in print? In order to get 100 circulations from the Harper/Collins electronic copy you will have to “rent” it three times, but you will never have to handle the item at all.

    We have entered a new era. Let’s get out in front instead of sitting back and examining our navels, whining about boycotts, and playing our usual mamby-pamby little games. (Where’s the drill sergeant when we need her??) And let’s above all, not be afraid to collect a little toll from our users who will thank us for the small price they are paying. And if anyone contributes a comment here about “we cannot charge the public” just move into this century with me, will you? Any patrons that want a “free” book can get into their $34,000 SUV, put some gas into it at $3.75 per gallon, drive to the library and pick up that book, then drive back to return it.

    Users who can afford a Nook or other e-book reader can pay a very minimum amount to rent a book from the library. And most of our users are carrying around a cell phone whose service fees over three months most likely exceed the cost of public library services paid per household in a year. And quit your whining and groaning as you read this!


    1. Maybe it’s a minor point, but the author retains copyright. The publisher has acquired first publication and electronic publication rights. The end effect for libraries is the same.

      I don’t work in a public library, so I’m not getting the pressure those at PLs are, but do we have to buy books that only those who have to equipment to use them can read when we have an alternative? I think charging taxpayers a second time for book rental is not the solution, particularly as it once again stratifies haves and have-nots. Also – though again, not having actual experience, what do I know? – but it seems as if implementing Overdrive and having to work with patrons and their gadgetry is actually adding a whole new set of demands on libraries, not requiring less handling, just different handling.


    2. Oh, the publishers own the books and want to make lots of money, I get it. Some things I don’t get.

      Speedos, I don’t get, but that’s not the topic.

      What I find rather confusing is if “renting” is the rational conclusion for HC, why not other publishers?

      I think HC are being a bunch of greedy jerks, but you know, I think that about mean people in general.

      But really, what makes HC so weak that it couldn’t keep doing as the other publishers were doing? I just don’t know. Then again, lots of things are confusing to me…like the tide coming in and out, never a miscommunication.

      What I do know, there is a word for the ordering, the cataloging, the weeding, the heating, the cooling, and operating sorting machines, the word is work. That’s what librarians do when they work. They work on all those things and more.

      There are even classes on how to do that stuff, no lie! If that blows your mind, there is a whole thing on answering questions that you wouldn’t believe!

      So here is the thing, when they spend all that money on “renting”, I could cut in on things like, staying open, hours or salaries, things that aren’t ebooks.

      Oh, that space the books take up, that’s part of the library. It’s a big part historically, really, just saying.

      Now, the hosting of the ebooks, the metadata for the ebooks, etc, we are paying for that in the price of “renting”. In fact, you are paying for databases, hosting, programmers, their people (they need heating and cooling too but no sorting machines as far as I know), bandwidth and all sorts of stuff when you get the ebook.

      And like, when you have one book, and you want more than one copy, you have to get another physical book, turns out with ebooks, they are just files and really easy to copy and share.

      Never owning, always being a renter, not good when it comes to books, I think. You see, you are at the mercy of idiots. We all are, always, but sometimes we can elect not to be.

      But that isn’t the point is it? Clearly we only serve the SUV driving well to do, you are so right on that….

      The point is, we had a deal with HC and it was working fine and hell, it looks like it is working fine for the other publishers. This new deal with HC, not so much and we are a mad. Maybe mad enough not to buy their books for awhile, maybe mad enough to tell our patrons that HC is screwing them as well as the library…maybe it will spill over into a public boycott. Maybe HC won’t care, maybe News Corp. will maybe not.

      Maybe you are right.

      But I’m glad you are here sticking up for HC, you know they need it. Otherwise they’d be thought of as greedy jerks pulling a stunt to see how much they could get away with, before people start messing with their cash.

      BTW I learned a lot about my navel, it often needs cleaning, I suggest you take a look at yours from time to time.


      1. What’s making them so weak is at least partially trying to shore up their current financial situation…they are one of the main creditors owed in the Borders bankruptcy, and I suspect have decided it’s time to find ways to increase revenue.


    3. Very thought-provoking, Bob. My first response was to put my back up and get angry about all this, but I’m trying to look at it from several different angles. I just don’t want already hurting libraries to suffer any more funding problems. No more closures, no more layoffs. That’s my concern.

      But this rental idea is a good one. I’d pay the $, too.


  12. Barbara:

    Thanks for the clarification on who holds the copyright. I don’t view a small “handling” charge of $0.99 as paying for something a second time. Yes, every taxpayer has contributed to the purchase of titles from OverDrive or another vendor, but my point was that by assessing this fee, the cost of the service could be almost completely recovered from the “haves”. The “have-nots” are most likely not going to have an e-book reader. Unless, of course, some libraries want to spend some of eveyrone”s money and purchase a number of readers to loan to users? And believe me, I don’t have a problem with any community deciding to make this available to everyone for “free”. What is most likely to happen though, is that the library will not increase its materials budget overall, but will rather move the money from another area of expenditures to purchase this service. Libraries are going to have to think about improving the bottom line and this would be one painless way to do so.

    Yes, it is true that the library staff will have to do hand holding and training for some users, but this can also prove to be an opportunity to introduce the many other wonderful (already paid for services) such as electronic databases, programs for kids, teens and adults, etc. Amazon now sells more electronic books (by 3 to 1) than it sells print books. Libraries absolutely have to make this service available to their users or begin to go the way of the Borders book stores that were not quite nimble enough.


  13. Finally a large library consortia has publicly said NO to HarperCollins–they are not buying it. Pioneer Library System of Oklahoma announced on their web site in an Open Letter to HarperCollins and Readers of eBooks: “We apologize to our readers who enjoy authors published by HarperCollins but until a change is made in the licensing, the Virtual Library cannot, in good conscience spend our limited budget, to repeatedly purchase eBook titles from HarperCollins or any other publisher who enforces checkout limits.” A boycott without even calling it a boycott. All in “good conscience.” I like that.


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