Q: Which Has Shorter Shelf-Life: E-Books or Chocolate Syrup?

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A. If the book in question is a library e-book from HarperCollins, you should be putting your money on Hershey’s.

The Library Journal broke the news on Friday that all new e-books licensed from that publisher — which brought us such modern classics as Sarah Palin’s America By Heart and Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says — will be good for 26 checkouts before the license expires. Part of their logic is that 26 boomerangs is the equivalent of about one year for popular titles, assuming the average checkout time is two weeks per bookworm. (Chocolate syrup, meanwhile, will stay good in your pantry for almost twice that long.) Many bookworms, however, aren’t pleased by this policy, and some are even trying to organize boycotts of the publisher until limits are removed completely.

At first glance, that kind of knee-jerk reaction seems par for the course in our age of digital entitlement, with many holding tight to the sentiment that creative works, copyrighted or no, should be free and unabridged. But this case is a little different, of course, given that we’re talking about institutions that make a habit of giving things away for free. And libraries already have in place some protective policies for publishers, such as limiting checkouts of e-books to one person at a time.

That said, the policy-makers at HarperCollins shouldn’t be tarred as completely unreasonable hoarders of words. Tangible books have a limited bookshelf lifespan — even if it would almost always be much longer than a year — so it seems fair that electronic titles would have some replacement potential, too. This rule would only apply to new titles, meaning anything out there now will stay out there indefinitely. And there are other publishers who refuse to dabble in the e-lending game at all.

Like all other media going digital, the transition for books is an awkward convergence of demands for business and pleasure. And while some are calling this policy an example of corporate selfishness, others are viewing it as a nice bit of compromise between publisher and reader. It is experimental in any case, which is exactly what we should expect from a company owned by News Corp. — the helm from which Rupert Murdoch has long been leading the charge to get people to pay for things (albeit with varying levels of success).

(Should you be hungry for more information on the shelf-lives of various foodstuffs, head here.)

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