Blog Post

Blood from a Turnip; or, HarperCollins vs. Public Libraries

Dumb, but also deeply disturbing: HarperCollins has found a new way to try and squeeze blood from a turnip (or money from chronically underfunded public libraries).

From Gizmodo:

C'mon HarperCollins. C'mon. We know that books aren't flying off shelves like they used to, but you're not helping matters with policies like thissetting your ebooks to lock up after 26 rentals and forcing libraries to buy a new copy to keep them on shelves. Ugh. The publisher's rationale is this: physical books wear outHarperCollins has determined that this happens after 26 check-outs, on averageand so ebooks should wear out, too, allowing publishers to profit from libraries' subsequently purchased copies.

As the librarians from Oklahoma's Pioneer Library System elegantly and amusingly demonstrate in the video below, this is just silly. Twenty-six is not only an arbitrary number but the use of any number at all--especially pegged as this one supposedly is to the life-cycle of a print artifact--misunderstands a great deal.

Ted Striphas argues in his book The Late Age of Print (2009) that "e-books are an emergent technological form by which problems pertaining to the ownership and circulation of printed books are simultaneously posed and resolved (22). They are, in other words, an extension of persistent twentieth-century efforts by publishers to control the surplus value of the printed book, which can be passed along from person to person (or resold) without publishers receiving money from each of the book's readers. E-books produced by corporate publishers, by contrast, are under normal circumstances non-transferable and non-shareable.

In his excellent chapter on this phenomenon, Striphas doesn't take account of the way libraries must have stymied publishers even more, given the way they amplify the number of users per book and promote an ideological investment in the idea of free access to print.

What is so fascinating--and disconcerting--is the way that e-books seem to have given HarperCollins to clamp down on both the surplus value produced and the ideology embodied in public libraries. One can even imagine, next, publishers giving print books--either by engineering physical breakdown or by required-return policies on sale to libraries--the same treatment, now that the model has been set. They could, conceivably (if not in any imminent likelihood), change their sales policies to libraries, requiring a books return or repurchase after 26 check-outs.

It is, therefore, not just an extension of the efforts to control consumption so ably described by Striphas--it's also a challenge to the very purpose and role or libraries in public life.


[re-posted from bookmobility.]


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