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Library e-books to become too tatty to lend

Digital copies must not outlast paper one, HarperCollins insists

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Does an e-book wear out? If it’s from publisher HarperCollins and belongs to a library, then the answer is now 'yes' – and potentially in as short a time as one year.

New terms introduced by the publishing giant mean that instead of being sold with a perpetual licence, as they are now, e-books sold to libraries will be limited to just 26 loans.

With many libraries having a default lending period of two weeks, that means that a popular book could need replacing after just one year.

Libraries already work with e-books on the basis of one copy, one loan, leading to waiting lists for popular titles, which will mean that those will have the shortest life span before ‘wearing out’.

HarperCollins claimed in the Library Journal that the 26-loan figure reflected the average lifespan of a paper book, after which it is too tatty, torn or stained to offer for lending, forcing the library to buy a new, replacement copy.

If its e-books don't disintegrate virtually, the publisher said, libraries will not replace them, costing it sales revenue.

Many librarians dispute this claimed lifespan, and some said they can now no longer afford to offer HarperCollins e-books. With many library services facing budget cuts, few will relish the prospect of having to replace e-books on an annual basis.

Perhaps in response to the outraged librarians, HarperCollins US' President of Sales, Josh Marwell, wrote an open letter claiming that the new system will provide for cheap renewals of expired e-books, and should cost libraries less overall, though without figures, that can’t be verified.

Reg Hardware spoke to OverDrive, which runs e-book lending services for 50 UK libraries, and told us the new policy would be applied worldwide.

HarperCollins UK described the 26-loan limit as one of “many models that may need to be tested before we reach the optimum outcome”, adding that it was preferable to simply not allowing e-book lending, which is the line taken by some publishers. ®

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