Macmillan subsidiary SF/fantasy publisher Tor has started delaying sales of its new-release ebooks to library provider Overdrive. The news has just come out through a post on Goodreads that I found via a Reddit thread: Overdrive purchase of frontlist ebook titles is now being delayed for four months from date of publication.
The original poster on Goodreads suggests that the ebook of Mary Robinette’s Kowal’s The Calculating Stars had been listed on Overdrive, but was suddenly pulled from Overdrive circulation at all the libraries near them on the book’s publication date.
User “pml” on Goodreads heard from a library employee that:
TOR books no longer sells their front-list to libraries. We must wait at least 4 months after the publication date before their new titles will be released to Overdrive for us to purchase. They have decided that library sales may be negatively impacting their retail sales and are participating in a study that will attempt to determine the impacts of libraries on the book market and sales, especially regarding eBooks.
It isn’t clear how long this study will take place, who is conducting it, or who else is participating in it. I’ve emailed Tor’s publicity contact asking for more information and will update if they respond. Meanwhile, the library employee asks that upset library patrons make their feelings heard via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m not sure whether this windowing move also affects printed books; one library near me has The Calculating Stars on order, and the other doesn’t list it at all. But if it’s for ebooks only, it’s not too surprising—paper books might be deemed less of a threat to new book and ebook sales, since you have to bestir yourself from your desk and go somewhere in person to get the print book whereas the ebook crawls right down your data pipe to you whether you check it out or buy it online.
The thing is, I’m not really sure to what extent library ebooks even could affect ebook sales. Libraries by and large don’t usually buy that many copies of ebooks, and new-release titles often get hold lists dozens of library patrons deep. Hence, relatively few people at a time have the ability to check the book out and read it for free, rather than going to spend money on it—and, indeed, if someone sees the hold list is dozens deep, they may decide it’s worth a little money to get to read it faster. If someone is really impatient to read the book, they’re not going to wait for days or weeks for it to be available; they’ll just go buy it. (Or pirate it.)
However, in a very real sense, library ebooks could displace ebook sales for some patrons advanced enough to crack the DRM on them. As I’ve noted before, the DRM that causes library ebooks to expire a certain amount of time after being checked out is the exact same DRM that platform-locks purchased ebooks. Anyone who’s learned how to crack and back up the ebooks that they pay for can also crack and back up library ebooks they get for free—and then “own” those ebooks without paying a single cent to the publisher. I doubt every cracked library book truly represents a lost sale any more than every pirated ebook does—most pirates probably wouldn’t have paid for the ebook anyway. But at least some of them might.
In any case, I’m not in favor of anything that makes libraries less useful to their patrons, but I find it hard to blame Tor for wanting to figure out if there’s a way to make itself and its authors any more money. The publishing industry hasn’t been having the easiest of times lately. And Tor’s earned some credit in my book for its willingness to dump ebook DRM and not return to it, even as few other publishers have followed suit. If it wants to try this kind of experiment, more power to it. If windowing the ebooks turns out not to make much difference after all, well, Tor will find that out soon enough—just as Paramount found that windowing its DVD titles from Redbox rentals didn’t make much difference in the end either.
On the bright side, at least Tor isn’t windowing its ebook sales, as some publishers tried briefly back in the day. People who really want a particular ebook can still buy it. They just can’t check it out from the library for four months—unless they want to go down there and get it on dead trees, which will apparently still be an option.