Discussion: Self-Destructing E-Books

An e-reader ; source: http://newsroom.icpl.org

As anyone who has been to a library knows, books often get beat up. It’s simply a fact of life that once a book has gone through several borrowers at a library, it’s going to be ripped and tattered and dog-eared from so much usage. Dog-eared pages get my blood up, but I never quabble about a few rips and tears on a book because that signals to me that the book has been loved. It means someone took it out and actually read it from cover to cover and spent time with it. Rips and tears are a sign of a loving relationship between a book and its owner.

The literary genre is moving increasingly toward electronic versions of our old friends, the books. As I’ve reported here many times, e-books are on the rise and newspapers and magazines are moving toward their main readership consisting of internet users. Last week, Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing.net posted about an interesting feature of “old” books that are carrying over into e-books as publishers, readers, and libraries all  make the change.

According to a post on BoingBoing, HarperCollins has made the decision to “limit library checkouts of its ebooks to 26, whereupon the books self-destruct.”

My position is the same as Doctorow’s in the post that he links to — this is just ridiculous. I personally cannot see the benefit of or reason for limiting checkouts of e-books. Of course, it would make sense with physical books for the reasons I mentioned above. Wear and tear is sure to eventually get the better of the paper and bindings of books and it would be necessary to take the book out of circulation in favor of a new copy. But, with electronic versions of those same books, you would think that wear and tear would be the least of your problems. Frankly, wear and tear is not even on the radar of someone borrowing and using an e-book because it’s not possible.

To me, this seems like a characteristic that publishers want to carry over from paper books to make the change seem less stark. If the number of checkouts for e-books is limited, then they’ll seem more similar to those paperback and hardback books we know and love. If they have an “expiration date,” as it were, then they may not seem so foreign to readers who prefer the original paper books. But, why introduce the concept or possibility of finality when infinity is achievable?

As readers of this blog will surely know, I’m not crazy about e-books.  But, this is just silly. If their reasoning is the same as mine — to make fans of paper books feel at home with e-books — it just doesn’t make sense to me. That same kind of finality and fallibility will not attract me to electronic books. The limitation of checkouts is simply impractical and I’m not really sure why HarperCollins would make that decision. Doctorow addresses the impracticality of this measure very well in his article, saying, “It would be like assuming the contractual obligation to attack the microfilm with nail-scissors every time someone looked up an old article, to simulate the damage that might have been done by our careless patrons to the newsprint that had once borne it.

Discussion: What do you think? Why do you think HarperCollins would want to limit the number of checkouts on their e-books? Do you think it’s an effective measure to attract fans of physical books?

— Jet Fuel Editor, Mary Egan

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