Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Is a Boycott of HarperCollins the Right Course of Action at This Time? A response

Bobbi Newman asks:  Is a boycott of HarperCollins the Right Course of Action at This Time?

Below is my response; a slightly edited version of an email I sent to a friend a few days ago.
Dear xxxxxx,

Of course I've been reading about the HarperCollins/Overdrive situation, and it is certainly of concern. However, at this point I am not aligned with the idea that a boycott is the best response. 

The larger issue of how digital content is going to be produced and where authors, publishers, and libraries fit into that picture is complex, and I suspect a great big scary unknown for all parties.  While I don't agree with HarperCollins' choice, and I don't think it will ultimately be a sustainable choice for them, I am still able to put myself in their shoes and see their point. Libraries want publishers to make econtent available in the same way, and under the same rules as print content.  But econtent is fundamentally different in that it does not deteriorate, and thus does not need to be replaced. From the publisher's perspective, what we used to pay for multiple times (as copies wore out) we now want to pay for once.

Again, I don't agree with HarperCollins choice (it's inelegant, clumsy, and I doubt if it will increase their bottom line in the way that they hope) but it is a rational decision.  As the owner of the publishing rights, they are free to lay out the terms of any licensing or purchasing agreement, and we are free to say, "yes please, or "no thank you."  Thus, I fully support libraries choosing not to by any HarperCollins content through Overdrive, and vote with their dollars in that way.  I also support libraries who choose to buy HarperCollins content because it meets the needs of their customers and they find the licensing terms acceptable.
My main concern with a full on boycott is this: I think a boycott is an extremely serious response and should be used very sparingly, and when there are large moral issues at stake, and/or there is  an immediate harm (possibly of a long term nature) that needs to be addressed.  Boycotts come at the end of talks/negotiations, not as the opening salvo, and not in response to honest disagreements, and only when there is some chance of having a real economic impact-- which I don't see as a possibility in this case.

Publishers are scared because they see that their profit model -- a model based on scarcity and the high cost of distributing physical items-- doesn't make sense any more.  Their economic model, their bottom line, is threatened.  At the same time libraries are scared and trying to figure out how we can apply the old rules -- rules also based on scarcity, and the cost/labor involved in maintaining/distributing physical items -- to a new digital reality.  There has always been a tension between publishers and libraries, as publishers want to sell multiple copies and it's easy (if shortsighted) to perceive libraries as cutting into sales.  But most publishers are also enlightened enough to see that libraries help them by cultivating readers, thereby supporting and enlarging their consumer base (as pointed out here among other places.)

I would prefer that before getting into talk of a boycott we acknowledge that publishers have legitimate concerns, and ask them to acknowledge that libraries are -- above all other institutions -- well-positioned to HELP their bottom line.  So let's talk about how we can develop sales/licensing agreements that make sense for all of us.  Let's not demonize each other. Let's get the authors (many of who want nothing more than to be read widely, and are huge library supporters) into the conversation, and get them advocating for us with publishers. (See Eric Flint and Marilyn Johnson's posts, among many others.)

So that's where I'm at with things in the moment. I hope that HarperCollins comes back to the table and renegotiates with Overdrive putting more reasonable options on the table. I hope that I'm wrong and calls to boycott them bring about some positive development. But as I'm not in alignment with this choice I cannot offer my support at this time.

See also: Posts that have resonated strongly with me


  1. Thank you Peter, I'm in complete agreement with you. You've stated it clearer and more eloquently than I could have.

  2. Yes. What Peter said.

  3. Thank you Peter for this.

  4. The problem with just accepting this as a process is that it will be practiced on the individuals who buy ebooks, as well as libraries. A reader who borrows from libraries pointed this out on #hcod yesterday, and I did, the day before. The publishers need to know this isn't appreciated at the grass roots, the readers/buyers of their ebooks and ereaders.

    As for us, we can find different ways to carry on, not purchasing as many replacements of ebooks, purchasing paperback(s) when the 26 lendings are through, audiobooks. Untile the audiobooks are timed out like the ebooks.

  5. It's funny how discussions can dilute to the finer points. I think everyone agrees what HarperCollins has done is wrong. The Boycott may be the extreme end of the discussion, but it is a valuable one. The boycott has been mentioned several times in big publications, whereas simply mentioning the twitter outrage makes the situations quaint. I think it is getting more attention to the matter because of it and it's important that someone took a heated reaction. I would think that this would otherwise have died down.

  6. Anonymous11:51 AM

    Very well said!