The Death of Books (It's Not What You Think)

We here at Olivia Waite signed on to Twitter this afternoon to find that the shit had severely collided with the metaphorical fan. Of course by now you've heard: HarperCollins has stated they want to restrict libraries from lending a single copy of an ebook more than 26 times. Once that (completely artificial) limit is reached, the library must purchase another digital copy. And to make sure that libraries don't get around that number—with their sneaky, sneaky Dewey decimal skills—the publisher would like access to patron records so they can verify the a particular library does not issue cards willy-nilly to unqualified patrons. There's a lot going on here, and much of it is infuriating. Courtney Milan and the always-excellent Smart Bitches have covered many of the immediate points about privacy and the way libraries foster a culture of reading, which in turn fosters actual book sales for publishers. I highly recommend both those pieces for clarifying precisely why this is such a colossally dumbass move on the part of HarperCollins.

I'm going to talk about a related issue: the question of book death.

A severely damaged book, open, whose pages are rippling and dark with mold and grossness.

The logic behind the HarperCollins move goes like so: physical books wear out and must be replaced by the purchase of another copy. Digital books do not wear out and so are never replaced, so we are losing sales on copies of ebooks purchased by libraries.

Leaving aside the questionable motive of 'losing' future sales where money hasn't yet changed hands, what HarperCollins is trying to do is force an equivalence between a digital book and a physical one. The physical book is considered superior in this case not because of aesthetics or nostalgia, but because it wears out and must be replaced.

But this assumes that the physical nature of print books always works to the publisher's advantage. This is not the case.

Let's talk about pulping.

When a paperback book fails to sell, a bookstore sends it back to the publisher and receives credit toward future purchases. Sometimes they strip the covers and return just that part of the book (mass market paperbacks), sometimes they send it back as is (trade paperbacks), and sometimes the book is marked as a remainder and sold on the cheap (hardbacks and art books and so on). And when the publisher receives these books back, they grind them up and recycle or otherwise dispose of them in a process known as pulping.

How much money do publishers spend on taking returns and sending books to be pulped each year? We don't know for certain (because nobody's talking) but we can be pretty sure it's a rather staggering figure. One site estimates the numbers to be somewhere around 30 to 40 percent of books—but that was two years ago, before the nasty economy really came out swinging.

You know what never needs to be pulped? An ebook, that's what. How much money would publishers save if they restricted print runs in favor of ebooks? (Hey, look at that, some publishers already do! Hi, Ellora's Cave!) How much better would that be from an environmental standpoint? An ebook is the most easily deleted thing in the world. I've done it myself a couple of times without even meaning to!

Giant square stacks of soggy pulped paper.

And ebooks themselves might never wear out—but the hardware they're attached to certainly does. I've bought my digital copy of the album Unforgiving Mistress three times from iTunes, on account of an unfortunate series of hard drive crashes. Ereaders are still a pretty new subset of technology, and we haven't seen what happens when the individual unit starts to break down and decay.

Moving on: HarperCollins (and really, publishing as a whole) tends to treat the easy replication of digital media as a problem. Oh no! It's easy and quick and cheap to copy! The pirates will do it and we'll starve in the streets! This is a reaction based on fear—fear of what's happened to the music industry and the movie industry.

Oh, wait, those industries are still going strong and have not yet collapsed in a puddle of film stock and concert footage? But—but pirates!

(Bonus points if you just giggled to yourself and said, "Butt pirates." You must be a romance author like me. Or you are twelve. Wait, why are you reading this if you are twelve? Go see a Star War.)

What if publishers took the fact that ebooks are easy to copy and really ran with it? Books could stay in print much longer without the issue of what to do with unsold physical copies. Hello, midlist authors! Hello, perpetual backlist! Goodbye, finding an author whose new book you adored but whose older works are impossible to find because they've been out of print almost as soon as they were in print!

What if publishers offered the customer discounted prices for buying ebooks in sets, the way iTunes does with albums? (Some publishers—hi, Harlequin and Carina!—are already doing this. Glory be to the book bundle!)

And the Big Six publishers have spawned so many imprints over the years that rare is the person who can keep track of them all. What about a way for ebook customers to subscribe not to the publisher as a whole, but to particular imprints? The subscription model may be failing for newspapers, but it's doing pretty well for Netflix. And it's been done before in the book industry—hi again, Harlequin!—though not since the rise of digital media. And I can't tell you how fast I would move to subscribe to Avon Romance—or Pantheon Books. [Update: turns out Harlequin sells subscriptions to a few of their series imprints (Presents, Blaze, Silhouette Desire, etc.). Neat!]

And this is just a list I came up with off the top of my head, while waiting for the microwave to finish cooking my pot pie. Surely someone more well-versed in the industry—say, at HarperCollins? I'm assuming they know a lot more about the book industry than a fledgling author?—could come up with a longer, better list if they took a few minutes out of their busy day invading the privacy of library patrons. If not, they can ask around on Twitter. The Tweeps know everything.

Because this idea about punishing libraries for doing what libraries have done since the Greeks began collecting books in Alexandria? That feels like the real death of books.