Ending a HarperCollins Boycott (February 27, 2011-August 7, 2013)

Boycott! by Tom Verre / CC-BY

Boycott! photo by Flickr user Tom Verre (CC-BY 2.0)

In Brief: The HarperCollins boycott, which was intended to demonstrate to the publisher that “self-destructing ebooks” was a bad idea, has not been successful. This article describes the intent behind the BoycottHarperCollins.com website, and also what the experience of boycotting HarperCollins was like for a public library in New Jersey. The goal of the article is to plant seeds for future activism, should the necessity arise. In particular, FOIA presents an opportunity for libraries to improve their ability to negotiate with publishers and other vendors.


On February 24, 2011, Joe Atzberger broke the news that HarperCollins would begin distributing self-destructing ebooks through OverDrive. This was not welcome news.

At the time, if public libraries wanted to lend ebooks to the communities they served, signing a contract with OverDrive was the only viable way for them to do it. The fact that OverDrive agreed to this stipulation from HarperCollins meant that libraries had no choice. Any ebooks they licensed from HarperCollins would become inoperable after 26 circulations. If libraries wished to continue to circulate these titles, they would have to pay for a license that granted them another 26 circulations.

After reading Atzberger’s post, Bobbi Newman wrote a post about HarperCollins’ self-destructing ebooks on her widely read blog, Librarian by Day. Over the next week, she updated her post, adding links to responses from OverDrive President and Chief Executive Officer, Steve Potash, as well as responses by dozens of librarians and non-librarians.

One of the ideas people raised was a HarperCollins boycott. The day after Bobbi Newman’s post, my friend Gabriel Farrell and I got together and created a website to let the world know that many people were going to boycott HarperCollins until it changed its policies, and to explain why people were making this decision. I have written extensively about our reasons, both on the website itself and in “Tangoing All the Way: Is Everything Negotiable?” and “The Ebook Cargo Cult.” These reasons can be summarized in five points:

  1. We believed the policy would further weaken First Sale and Fair Use.
  2. We believed the policy would undermine libraries’ core values, such as access and preservation.
  3. We believed the policy would force libraries to allocate their financial resources less efficiently.
  4. We believed the policy would establish a precedent, and that other publishers would adopt similar policies.
  5. We believed a boycott was our best chance to get HarperCollins to change the policy it had announced through OverDrive. We didn’t think we would get all that much attention, and even if we did get a fair amount of attention we didn’t think we were likely to persuade HarperCollins to alter its plans, but the boycott seemed better than any of the other options available to those of us who thought self-destructing ebooks would be a net loss for readers, libraries, and publishers.

Although we still believe in those reasons, and even though HarperCollins has not changed its policy, we think the time has come to end the boycott. We have made this decision for two reasons: 1) the boycott didn’t work and does not appear likely to succeed in achieving our aims, and 2) I don’t want to put my new colleagues in the American Library Association’s Digital Content Working Group into an uncomfortable position.

Our decision has nothing to do with pressure from our neighbors ((Rather than “patrons” or “customers,” I refer to the people we serve as “neighbors.” Our neighbors who have library cards are referred to as “cardholders” or “members.”)) or HarperCollins or the amount of work required (within the library itself) or the expense involved in boycotting a major publisher or any of the other reasons my peers at other libraries gave for not participating. If libraries appreciate how easy it is to participate in a boycott, I think they will be more likely to lend their support next time a boycott seems like the best way to bring about changes that would benefit readers.

Part of the motivation for this article is to explain what the boycott was like from the perspective of a participant. I hope our experience can serve as a useful case study. I also want to plant the seeds for the next boycott.

Participating in a Boycott Was Far Easier than We Expected, but Even Less Effective

Neither Gabriel nor I wanted to organize a boycott. Our plan was to create a website that reflected the fact that many libraries and readers were disappointed in HarperCollins’ decision and planned not to buy any of its books until it changed its policy.

Neither of us is media savvy, but we’re savvy enough to recognize our own limitations. You’re not going to see either of us on a reality show and, while we’ve both worked hard to become competent public speakers and will give the occasional presentation, it’s not like we’re fixtures on the speaking circuit. Gabriel is an excellent coder and a very good writer. I write consistently, and I have built websites for almost as long as there has been a World Wide Web. We’re comfortable working in text, especially when we can iterate and collaborate. And, personally, I prefer to iterate and collaborate for weeks, and to be given a few thousand words so as not to be misunderstood. Having to persuade people in real time, in person or in an interview, is not playing to my strengths. Our hope was that others would naturally emerge to provide leadership for the boycott and give it a public face and a voice that would inspire others to join.

What we could do was document that a boycott was emerging, and we could document it in a public, accessible, understandable way. The front page of the website we created was intentionally basic. At the top was the question, “Are we still boycotting HarperCollins?” In the middle of the page was the answer to that question, in large letters. As long as HarperCollins would only license self-destructing ebooks to libraries, the answer would read, “Yes.” Once it changed that policy, we would change the answer to “No.” The rest of the text read, “As of [that day’s date], HarperCollins is still limiting the number of times an ebook can be borrowed from your library, so the boycott is on.” We then linked to a short explanation for the boycott, a sample letter that people could send to HarperCollins, and a contact page to get in touch with us.

Original versions of the website didn’t have our names anywhere on it, but the people we showed it to as beta testers told us that we needed to let site visitors know who had created the website or it lacked credibility, so we added our names at the bottom of the explanation page. Our testers also encouraged us to track who chose to participate in the boycott, though on that point we refused. We knew that, “Who is participating?” would be one of the first questions that most people would ask, but we also knew that we would be seen as the organizers of the boycott if we tracked who participated, and we didn’t want to be seen as organizers. Our idea was to let people know it was happening and, ideally, when it ended. We looked forward to the day when we could change the text at the bottom of the website to read, “As of [that day’s date], HarperCollins is no longer limiting the number of times an ebook can be borrowed from your library, so the boycott is off.”

The boycott got far more publicity outside of libraries than we anticipated: the New York Times, ABC News, Atlantic Monthly, USA Today and dozens of others publications ran stories about it. Change.org got in touch with us to see if we would let them host a petition, Andy Woodworth agreed to organize it, and over 70,000 people signed on to “Tell HarperCollins: Limited Checkouts on eBooks is Wrong for Libraries.” Library Journal did a great job of reporting on the HarperCollins decision and its aftermath, and kept its own log of prominent libraries that publicly committed to join the boycott.

Gabriel and I kept our involvement minimal. We updated the website as infrequently as we could—we viewed the website as an app whose primary purpose was to answer a simple question, “Are we still boycotting HarperCollins?”—and did our best to guide reporters and others with inquiries to Bobbi Newman, Andy Woodworth, Kate Sheehan (whose post about the HarperCollins situation we linked to from our website), and other librarians who could better explain the problems created for libraries when their only access to many popular ebooks was to license copies that had a limited number of checkouts.

The one reporter to whom I granted an interview worked for The Retrospect, a weekly newspaper that covers Collingswood, the New jersey town where I live and work, as well as its neighboring communities. In the March 18, 2011 edition of The Retrospect, the cover story read, “Colls Library Director Leading Boycott Against E-Book Publisher.” I expected a vocal minority of my neighbors to ask difficult questions about our decision, either in person or in letters to the editor. I prepared myself to respond to their concerns, to be as persuasive in real-time and in person as I like to believe I am in print. But not one person challenged me.

This may have been because, despite the article in our local paper, we tried not to make a big deal about it. There were no signs in the library and no announcements on our website. If people wanted a HarperCollins-published book, we would explain to them that we were having trouble with that vendor, but would do what we could to get it for them. It might take a while, and might not even be possible, but we would try. If they asked about the nature of the problem, we would explain about the self-destructing ebooks, that the only deal we were being offered was not in the library’s best interest or theirs. Some of our neighbors were disappointed about a few of the titles we probably would not be able to help them access, but everyone expressed their understanding and support.

Failing to capitalize on this support was probably a mistake, especially if we could have provided a template for other libraries. Our traditional goal for the Collingswood Public Library has been in keeping with the idea of making it a third place. If I were to violate that tacit agreement, I thought we would be in danger of alienating even those who sided with us in the boycott, because I felt their allegiance to having a relatively apolitical space may exceed their allegiance to standing up for their rights as readers. In my imagination, they were trusting me to allocate their tax dollars in a way that best approximated their interests and supported their well being. They not only trusted me not to spend $500 on an item that seemed unlikely to get much use, they also trusted me not to tell them every time I made that decision. Correctly or not, I told myself that was the appropriate analogy in the case of the HarperCollins books we boycotted. Perhaps for that reason, participating in the boycott was a lot easier than we ever would have expected.

Ultimately, we got national publicity and community support that exceeded our wildest dreams. However, had we known we would get so much publicity and support, we would have expected HarperCollins to care more than it did. Its president of sales published an open letter to librarians on the HarperCollins marketing team’s blog, Library Love Fest, and members of the marketing team had phone meetings with several librarians, but HarperCollins stood firm publicly and, as far as I know, privately as well.

The 75 Books

Because no one was organizing the boycott, each library or individual participant interpreted the boycott somewhat differently. For instance, some libraries bought print books, but not ebooks. At Collingswood, we were boycotting HarperCollins and all of its imprints, which for us meant that none of the funds we directly controlled were spent on any print books, audio books, or ebooks it published.

One way to understand the way the boycott affected our community is to look at a list of the titles we would have purchased if there had been no boycott. After the library’s board of trustees authorized the boycott, I asked our primary selector of adult fiction to create her shopping cart on our bookseller’s website without regard to the book’s publisher. Before putting her order through, I pulled the HarperCollins titles out of her cart and put them into a cart labeled “Pending (HarperCollins Imprints)”.

I also added any requests we received, either for fiction or nonfiction, to this “Pending” cart, provided those requests were for books we would have added to the collection under normal circumstances. In other words, if a book made its way into this cart, we would have bought it; if it did not, we would have requested it via interlibrary loan even if there had been no boycott. The funds we would have spent on HarperCollins titles were spent on other titles. We did not bank the funds or create an escrow account. All of the funding that was available to spend on books, we spent on books.

Between February 27, 2011 and July 27, 2013, we placed 75 books into our “Pending” cart. Their total cover price was $1,955.25, and our bookseller’s estimated discount price for them was about $1,140 as of July 27, 2013 (the price has been rounded slightly out of courtesy to the bookseller). Although we were boycotting HarperCollins, and no funds we directly controlled were spent on any of its products, we were not censoring our community. There were five ways that “boycotted” HarperCollins books could be accessed through the library:

  1. Donations: When we received donations of HarperCollins books, we would add them to the circulating collection, just as we would for any other publisher. This did not happen a lot, and we do not solicit specific titles as donations, but it happened for four “boycotted” titles since February 27, 2011 and those books circulated 39 times.
  2. Ebooks: Since March 2011, we have participated in the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative’s OverDrive consortium, and the consortium did not join the boycott. Even now, ebooks only represent about 3% of our circulation — about 175–275 items per month — and that percentage was smaller for most of the boycott. Of the 3,812 OverDrive checkouts by our cardholders, 28 were for “boycotted” HarperCollins titles. We thought about leaving OverDrive, and plan to do so as soon as we can offer a suitable alternative. OverDrive’s complicity with HarperCollins is one of the main reasons we recently signed a contract with its primary competitor, 3M, and it is also one of the reasons why we will never purchase any books directly through OverDrive. There are other reasons as well, including its willingness to sacrifice user privacy in exchange for serving titles to Kindles and its unwillingness to allow libraries to transfer titles they purchase through OverDrive to other vendors’ ebook platforms if they ever choose to cancel their contract with OverDrive.
  3. Audiobooks: We belong to a multi-library audiobook consortium which bought a couple of the boycotted titles on compact disc. We circulate a subset of this audiobook collection for three months, then pass that subset onto the next library and add a different subset for three months. “Boycotted” titles circulated six times during the course of the boycott.
  4. Interlibrary Loan: We put in interlibrary loan requests for any book our cardholders wish to read, including HarperCollins titles. Many of our cooperating libraries do not make their newest titles available via interlibrary loan, but if libraries were willing to share their books with our cardholders, we were willing to process those requests. During the course of the boycott, we put in 73 requests for “boycotted” titles and 54 were fulfilled.
  5. Reciprocal Borrowing: We have reciprocal borrowing arrangements with libraries in two nearby communities, Gloucester City and Haddon Heights, neither of which joined the boycott, so Collingswood Library cardholders could have gone to these libraries and checked out HarperCollins-published books. I do not know how many chose to do so.

I have posted the complete list of “boycotted” HarperCollins titles as a spreadsheet on Google Docs, along with documentation about which books my neighbors accessed through the library and how often. The fields in the spreadsheet are:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Cover Price: out of courtesy to our bookseller, I have not shared our discounted price
  • ISBN
  • Release Date: the book’s publication/release date, as reported by our book vendor
  • ILL Canceled: the number of times we put in an ILL request and it was canceled for any reason
  • ILL Retried: the number of times an ILL request had to be retried
  • ILL Filled: the number of times we were able to fulfill one of our neighbors’ requests
  • Total ILL Requests: the sum of the previous three fields, included to make it easier to assess how much staff time was devoted to placing ILL requests for books we might have otherwise owned
  • Added as Donation (date): the date a book donation was added to our catalog
  • Book Circs: the number of times a donated book circulated
  • Audiobook Circs: the number of times an audiobook circulated (note that we only had each title for three months)
  • Ebook Circs: the number of times the ebook circulated

During the course of the boycott, Collingswood Public Library helped its members access “boycotted” HarperCollins books 127 times, perhaps a few more if they took their cards to the libraries with whom we have reciprocal borrowing arrangements.

Making Sense of Anecdotal Evidence

The primary way our cardholders could access HarperCollins books during the boycott was to place an interlibrary loan request. For that reason, looking at our interlibrary loan data can be helpful in understanding how the boycott affected my neighbors and my colleagues. ((While it will be left as an exercise to the reader to apply Collingswood’s experience boycotting a “Big Six” publisher to their own libraries, it seems reasonable that some information about us would be useful in making an educated guess. If libraries ever find themselves in a similar or worse position, and are deciding if a widespread boycott might be an appropriate response, we want them to have access to our data and the context in which they were gathered.

Collingswood Public Library is an independent, municipal library with a budget of about $550,000, has 8.5 FTEs (including its director), and is open 65 hours per week. We have about 85,000 circulations per year. From its single location, the library serves the boroughs of Collingswood and Woodlynne. Both towns share a border with Camden, NJ, but also with more affluent neighboring towns as well. The front door of the library is seven miles from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

The library serves a total population of 16,904 people, according to the 2010 census, and we are a relatively diverse community.

Demographics of Collingswood Public Library
Demographic Percent
American Indian and Alaska native alone 0.39%
Asian alone 3.53%
Black or African American alone 13.41%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific native alone 0.02%
Some other race alone 7.38%
Two or more races 2.95%
White alone 72.33%
Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin (of any race) 14.71%
Persons 0-17 years 21.33%
Persons 65 and older 12.20%

According to American FactFinder, the per capita income for the population we serve was $31,322 in 2010, and at that time an estimated 12.7% had incomes below the poverty line.))

Between February 27, 2011 and July 27, 2013, the staff of the Collingswood Public Library placed 4,443 interlibrary loan requests. Many of these had to be retried or cancelled, and many went unfilled, so a single borrower request could trigger multiple requests in our interlibrary loan system.

Of these 4,443 requests, the only ones that are relevant to this discussion were for books, specifically those books published between 2010 and 2013. We weren’t calling for a boycott of other Rupert Murdoch or News Corp or 21st Century Fox-owned companies, so non-book requests are not relevant, and any book published prior to 2010 would have been an interlibrary loan request even if there were no boycott. Books published since 2010 accounted for 1,109 interlibrary loan requests during the boycott. The 75 “boycotted” HarperCollins titles were 73 of those 1,109, just over 6.5%.

Because our interlibrary loan responsibilities are shared among three of my colleagues, and because the volume of requests varies during the year, it is difficult to estimate how much time is spent on interlibrary loans, but it seems to be roughly one FTE. It’s probably somewhat less, but the most conservative estimate I can make an argument for is one FTE, so I have rounded up.

We placed just over 150 interlibrary loan requests per month during the boycott (4,443 request ÷ 29 months of the boycott = 153 requests/month). We have data for the 15 months preceding the boycott, during which time we also placed about 150 interlibrary loan requests per month (1,830 ÷ 15 months preceding the boycott = 153 requests/month). Participating in the boycott did not increase the number of interlibrary loan requests we were placing, relative to where we were before joining the boycott (although it is possible that it offset what would otherwise have been a slight decrease).

We spend about as much time processing the interlibrary loan requests we receive as we spend making requests to other libraries, so the 73 requests we placed for the “boycotted” books cost us about a quarter of an FTE’s month. With benefits calculated in, we spent about $1,100 on these interlibrary loans (and the libraries on the other end probably spent a roughly equivalent amount).

Based on this estimate, we spent about as much borrowing our 75 “boycotted” books from other libraries, and then sending them back, as we would have spent if we had bought them directly. We were left with no artifacts to represent our efforts, while the purchases would have resulted in 75 books that would have circulated a lot more than our 54 fulfilled interlibrary loan requests—likely, for the more popular titles, more than 26 times each. Also, oranges generally have thicker peels than apples.

The problem with comparing the individual circulation that results from a fulfilled interlibrary loan to an individual circulation that results from an item in the circulating collection is marginal cost. It’s expensive to have people working on interlibrary loans (and expensive for the New Jersey State Library to furnish libraries throughout the state with interlibrary loan software and delivery services), but each additional interlibrary loan request costs slightly less than the one before it. It’s almost certain that we spent less than $1,100 on the 73 interlibrary loan requests that resulted in 54 fulfillments, we just don’t know how much less.

Another problem with concluding that we would have had more to show for it if we had spent $1,100 buying these 75 books rather than borrowing a subset of them from other libraries is that we spent that $1,100 buying books, only we bought them from publishers other than HarperCollins. Ultimately, we owned the same number of books. What we don’t know is whether those books circulated more or less than the books we would have purchased from HarperCollins, or if the absence of those books would have resulted in greater or fewer interlibrary loan requests.

Ultimately, we inconvenienced our cardholders more than we would have liked, but we face that situation together every day. That’s life at a small library with roughly average funding. With the exception of maybe five books per year, we only buy a single copy of each title, which means that for popular books there is almost always going to be a wait. And we buy many fewer titles than we would like, so for titles that seem less certain to circulate, there’s a good chance our cardholders will have to put in a request and wait for us either to buy it or borrow it.

As I discussed above, we created extra work for my colleagues. That’s not ideal, but that’s also a function of life at a small library. Over the 29 months of the boycott, they probably spent about 30-35 hours placing requests for these books, processing them when they arrived, and packaging them for their return. I wish they could have spent those 35 hours, spread out more or less evenly over the course of 29 months, on something more productive. But I’m not certain that we could have spent the extra 15 minutes per week on something more productive than standing up for first sale, fair use, and libraries’ core values, even if we were ultimately unsuccessful. Even though we’re ending our participation in the boycott, I hope we’re able to continue to dedicate this kind to time to intellectual freedom. If every library were to designate one person to spend 15 minutes per week on “upholding the public’s right to a free and open information society,” we would make a life a lot easier for Alan Inouye, Carrie Russell, Marijke Visser, and Larra Clark, our amazing colleagues in ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy.

The boycott also resulted in lost sales for the authors and for HarperCollins. I feel bad for both. We disagreed with the HarperCollins decision, enough that we refused to buy its books for 29 months, but we never took any satisfaction in directing less money to its editors, publicists, authors, marketing team, or anyone else in the company’s publishing division. We prefer to think of publishers as our allies. We wanted to send a clear message to HarperCollins about its decision, but we hoped that message would result in a policy change, not in a less capable publisher. We believed, and still believe, that giving libraries a reasonably priced option to buy (rather than license) ebooks is in all parties’ best interest.

Why We Are Ending the Boycott

We’re ending the boycott because the boycott failed. We’re ending it because there really is no boycott left to end, and probably hasn’t been for some time.

We’re ending the boycott in the same way we started it. We always believed it wasn’t ours to start, so we didn’t start it: we simply created a website that reflected the existence of a boycott. Having a website that claims there is a boycott when that boycott no longer exists would be disingenuous.

There are libraries that still are not buying books from HarperCollins, and that will remain true for some time. There are people who still won’t buy gas from Shell even though apartheid was abolished in 1994, ending the Shell boycott with it. But a few rogue activists is not a boycott.

Of course, the Shell boycott ended because South Africa changed its policies. This analogy fails in the sense that HarperCollins has not changed its policy, but the point remains valid: when a boycott is over, it’s over, even if a few people still choose not to spend their money on a given company’s products. Perhaps a somewhat better example is Nike, whose labor practices have been under scrutiny for decades. Many people still will not buy Nike products even though, according Ethical Consumer’s Rob Harrison, Nike “has come a long way,” including building a compliance program that is accredited by the Fair Labor Association. Part of Nike’s reforms may be attributable to activists and social pressure by the people it would like to have as customers. There are gray areas within consumer action, and victories and losses are sometimes difficult to categorize.

In addition to the lack of widespread participation in the HarperCollins boycott, we’re also ending it because I have been appointed to the Digital Content Working Group, a committee created by the American Library Association to help develop strategies for representing libraries’ needs to publishers and publishers’ needs to libraries. This committee didn’t exist when we joined the boycott, but the work it’s doing is moving the profession toward the boycott’s goals. The leaders of the committee meet with publishers, along with ALA officers and staff who are working closely with the committee. These conversations seem to be helping to get more ebooks into libraries, perhaps under more favorable licensing arrangements than they otherwise might have been. Publishing executives appear to be taking the committee’s work seriously when they make decisions. There are reasons to believe the days of HarperCollins making a unilateral decision and announcing that decision through OveDrive are over.

While it’s unlikely that I will ever meet with any executives from any publishers as part of my work in the Digital Content Working Group, other members of the committee probably will continue to have these meetings. I don’t want these colleague to have to answer for my decision to boycott a company. I would be happy to answer those questions if someone from HarperCollins or any other publisher asked them to me. My answers are included in this article. But it’s unacceptable to me to create even a small chance that someone would have to answer the question, “Why should I deal with your committee when you have someone on it who is boycotting my company?” It doesn’t seem collegial for me to create that possibility for them, and it seems irresponsible to engage in activities that could undermine our work.

Yes, there’s a very, very small chance of that happening and, yes, if publishers are aware of In the Library with the Lead Pipe then this would be an instance of the Streisand effect. I hope they do read this journal, because that would be cool, and because if they read my articles then they’ll realize that I have an issue with their decision, not with them as people or with their company as an entity. Like the other members of the Digital Content Working Group, I want publishers to succeed, and I am committed to helping them develop ebook business models that will be better for them, for libraries, and for readers.

What We Should Do Differently Next Time…

We chose to boycott HarperCollins just after its policy was announced because we believed something needed to be done, and we believed by acting quickly we had a chance to get the publicity we needed in order to put pressure on HarperCollins to change that policy. We knew, from our understanding of the GE Boycott, which was responsible for the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Deadly Deception,” that targeting a big company with a well known brand could lead to success. We knew that if HarperCollins made it permissible to offer libraries an even worse ebook deal than we were already getting, that subsequent deals would continue to push that boundary—that the deals we would get from publishers would continue to get worse and worse.

We were right about all of those things, but we were wrong about a much larger point. We were wrong about what makes boycotts successful, and we were wrong about that because I didn’t approach my responsibilities the way I should have. I was a bad advocate because I was a bad librarian. I didn’t do my research. I failed at the one thing I was best qualified to do well.

Scholars and activists have produced a large, practical, and readable body of work about boycotts. Among academics, I recommend starting with the following researchers:

  • Monroe Friedman, emeritus professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University, who wrote numerous papers on boycotts, as well as what many scholars still seem to think of as the seminal book on the subject, Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and the Media;
  • Brayden King, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, whose work is summarized at his blog and through KelloggInsight, and can be found online in full text through a search for the title of a paper he published in Administrative Science Quarterly in 2008, “A Political Mediation Model of Corporate Response to Social Movement Activism.”
  • Paul Sergius Koku, marketing professor at Florida Atlantic University, who has published two papers that would have been helpful if they had been available before the boycott, “On Boycotts Organized Through the Internet” (2011) and “On the Effectiveness of Consumer Boycotts Organized Through the Internet: The Market Model” (2012).

In retrospect, the lessons I should have learned from these researchers seem obvious: plan a strategy and get a core group together before announcing anything; organize the effort and give people a central place to compare notes and announce their support; get as much attention as possible in as many venues as possible for as long as possible; make sure the company is vulnerable and direct attention to the ways it seems most likely to change in order to meet its needs while addressing our concerns; focus more on the company’s desire to protect its reputation than preserve its short-term profitability; clearly define the desired outcome; make it clear that the people who are participating in the boycott are credible and that our desire for change is justified.

In my opinion, the work available from activists is just as credible and useful as the work published by the academics. As King wrote in “how protests matter:” “…public intellectuals (tend) to cast contemporary activists as either ineffective amateurs or as old hippies who’ve never been much good anyway. My guess is that most critics of protestors (sic) have never met professional activists and so they have no idea of just how organized and savvy they can be.”

For instance, Jenette Nagy contributed “Organizing a Boycott” as section 17 of chapter 33 in “The Community Toolbox (edited by Phil Rabinowitz and Kate Nagy),” a “service of the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas.” In addition to the lessons we could have learned from the academics, if we had read Nagy first we would have known to “partner with other groups who share your point of view,” offer clear alternatives to the products we were boycotting, and notify HarperCollins that they were about to have a boycott directed at them.

It also would have been helpful to have read Co-op America’s “Boycott Organizer’s Guide” (PDF) by Connie Murtagh and Carla Lukehart. They suggest setting the time frame for the boycott at the outset, and making it a priority to get endorsements and form partnerships with associations, institutions, and other companies. They also encourage organizers to get celebrity endorsements, create videos and other easily accessible educational material, and sponsor in-person activities such as rallies that are likely to get attention from the media and potential participants. Finally, they feel it is important to try to meet directly with the company.

If we had known how much went into successful boycotts, we may not have tried anything at all, and maybe libraries would have been better off. Attempting a boycott and failing may be demoralizing for libraries and further evidence, for our vendors, that we are incapable of standing up for our core values or the legislation we have long relied on as protection for our communities and ourselves.

However, it’s also possible that, had we known what it took to be successful, we would have worked with others to increase the likelihood of the boycott’s success. We did a little bit of that when we reached out to Bobbi Newman and Kate Sheehan and other librarians to ask if we could put reporters in touch with them, and when we asked Andy Woodworth to lead the Change.org petition. Maybe we should have sent out a few more emails or made a few more phone calls. Maybe we had to get our website up and running quickly before everyone moved on to the next story and the “HarperCollins self-destructing ebooks” story became old news. Or maybe we could have spent a week figuring out who was willing to get involved, and in what capacity, and been part of a more thoughtful, better organized campaign. Our ultimate role may have been similar—we are more comfortable and effective behind the scenes—but perhaps others would have been comfortable guiding the other activities that are associated with successful consumer action. Knowing what we know now, I wish we had tried.

…Because There Probably Will Be a Next Time

It can be difficult to recognize an economic or financial inflexion point while it’s happening, but libraries appear to be in the midst of one right now. Our funding is fluctuating, and so are the prices demanded by our corporate partners as they react to changes in technology, labor and consumer markets, and the legal environment. The ebook pricing matter remains unresolved, and it is just one of many issues that will require us to balance our desire to be pragmatic against our long-term responsibilities to steward our culture’s resources and protect intellectual freedom. These issues include journal pricing and access, the ability to provide library members with web-based access to audio and video, the right to modify and extend the software we purchase, the ease with which we can transfer our data from one platform to another, and the privacy protections we can make available for our neighbors, faculty, students, and others in the communities we serve.

In working toward agreements with our corporate partners, librarians who work in libraries would be wise to accept the likelihood that our colleagues who work for vendors are much, much better negotiators than we are:

  1. Vendors know their product a lot better than their customers do. This gives them a much better sense of how much it is generally worth to libraries like ours. Yes, there are libraries like ours. Librarians overestimate the differences between the libraries where we work and the ones with which we are comparable. Vendors can better calibrate our similarities because they work with a lot of libraries, while we just work at one.
  2. Vendors have a lot more practice negotiating than library-based librarians. That’s what they do all day, every day, more or less. Librarians who work at libraries negotiate a few times per year, if that.
  3. Vendors have more resources than library-based librarians. If they need to talk to legal, they pick up the phone and talk or text with the person who wrote the contract. Every time libraries have to call in a lawyer, the odds are against our making a good deal.
  4. Vendors are hired for their negotiating skill and their career success depends on it. I have never seen a library job advertisement that emphasizes the ability to negotiate well with vendors, nor have I heard of any libraries that offer commissions or year-end bonuses based on their employees’ ability to secure good deals from vendors.

The point of negotiation is not to be as mercenary as possible, but it is to secure the best long-term deal for our employers. Vendors know this, and they do their jobs well, so libraries are always going to be pushed to come up with as much money as they possibly can for the services they feel they need to provide to their communities. As people, front-line librarians and library administrators are not generally going to have the skills to identify offers that damage our long-term sustainability, and we are not used to structuring counter offers that meet our needs while meeting our vendors’ needs as well.

One consequence of vendors knowing how to negotiate better than libraries is they set the rules of the negotiation to play to their strengths. For instance, most vendors do not publish their prices, which means that libraries have insufficient knowledge of the market, including markets such as scholarly publishing and popular ebooks in which vendors operate as de facto monopolies or oligopolies. Insufficient knowledge of the market is a big deal, a point illustrated recently in a story by NYC News about marijuana dealers moving from San Francisco to New York because medical marijuana laws have led to greater transparency in pricing, leading to lower prices for consumers. As quoted in priceonomics, “Chuck, a dealer who switched from selling weed in California to New York and quadrupled his income, told WNYC, ‘There’s plenty of weed in New York. There’s just an illusion of scarcity, which is part of what I’m capitalizing on. Because this is a black market business, there’s insufficient information for customers.’”

If a drug dealer’s self-reported quadrupled income is not sufficiently credible, consider the Oklahoma hospital that posted its prices online in a successful attempt to start a bidding war for medical services. As reported by KFOR-TV’s Ali Meyer, the Surgery Center of Oklahoma’s prices were often one-fifth as high as those of its competitors.

You’re paying 4x as much as you should for your library management system, and overpaying to access journal articles by a factor of 5. HTH.

The next big action on behalf of libraries may not be a boycott. Instead, it may be an effort to get vendors to post their prices online. Why would vendors choose to do this? Because it could be made clear to them that they don’t really have a choice. Public libraries and libraries associated with public colleges and universities can sign all the nondisclosure agreements they want, but their contracts and bills are all public information. ((The Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, is not monolithic: it varies from country to country and, within the United States, it varies from state to state. The best resources for the US deal mainly with exemptions, and none of those exemptions include vendor contracts agreed to by a public library or publicly funded university. Resources for individual states can be found in the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’s Open Government Guide, as well as in ALA’s list of exemptions (mainly “personally identifiable uses of library materials”). Another way to look at it, which is especially interesting for those who have followed the Director of Libraries at the State University of New York at Potsdam, Jenica Rogers and her fight with the American Chemical Society over its journal prices: go to Pennsylvania’s E-Contracts Library and then, under “Search Using Other Terms” → “Contracting Party(s)” type in “American Chemical Society”. Or just go directly to the source: as of 2012, SUNY complies with New York State’s Freedom of Information Law. Note: Jenica Rogers is one of the reviewers for this article.)) With the development and increasingly widespread use of Alaveteli, Muckrock, and the FOIA Machine, it’s just a matter of time until enough library contracts and bills are made public that vendor pricing will be available to anyone who cares to know it. I predict that vendors with sustainable, ethical practices and pricing models are going to start publishing their prices online in the near future in order to protect their market position and trade on their hard-earned reputations. In the meantime, anyone interested in creating foia4lib as a companion to code4lib, foss4lib, and web4lib? I can’t be the only one who wants to know how well Alaveteli, Muckrock, and FOIA Machine work for people researching libraries.

For libraries to successfully advocate for themselves, we need to develop the skills and willingness to serve as activist leaders and collaborate on activist projects. Our experience participating in an unsuccessful HarperCollins boycott may prove useful to libraries as they plan to participate in subsequent activities, such as a foia4lib or a boycott that occurs the next time a vendor institutes a policy that could permanently damage libraries, the people we serve, and the vendor itself. It may also encourage us to participate in more successful, better organized boycotts, such as the Elsevier boycott, which can be followed and joined at The Cost of Knowledge. I’ve signed on in support. I hope you will as well.

Thanks to Gabriel Farrell, Jenica Rogers, and my In the Library with the Lead Pipe colleague, Hugh Rundle, for their insightful comments on this article.

10 Responses

  1. A side issue, but, I found this interesting:

    ‘Based on this estimate, we spent about as much borrowing our 75 “boycotted” books from other libraries, and then sending them back, as we would have spent if we had bought them directly. ‘

    That may be less about the boycott, then a general argument for always purchasing a book instead of ILL’ing it, if it’s still in print. If it costs the same amount to buy a new book as to ILL it, why would you ever ILL it instead of just buying it?

    Of course, there are two sides to the “we were left with no artifacts to represent our efforts” — when you are left with the artifact, there’s ongoing cost to storing it on your shelves (shelfspace is a limited resource).

    But in general, I think that calculation you made there says less about the economics of the boycott than it does about challenging the economics of ILL in general, for in-print materials.

    1. Good point. In general, I think most public libraries use ILL for no-longer-in-pint-as-hardcovers or for expensive materials. This case very likely presents a distorted view of the economics of ILL. It’s just that, in this instance, it was the best we could do for our cardholders who wanted to read certain books but didn’t want to buy them.

    1. Good observation. I should have made this clear in the article, or at least acknowledged it explicitly, but the thing was already so long and already contained so much self reflection and Collingswood-specific minutia that I didn’t go into it. Lame excuse.

      Anyway, I was comfortable with our head of youth services deciding for herself whether it was worth joining the boycott, and she chose not to participate. In this instance (and in most other instances), I see it as my job to be persuasive, not autocratic. I wasn’t persuasive enough, which means I did my job poorly. Maybe next time I’ll do better.

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  4. Shirley Miller

    I thought this was an excellent article, self-reflection included. Thank you. I am interested from two points of view: until I retired I was Director of Leisure Services in a UK East London borough whose services included public libraries, and in retirement am an avid reader of e-books borrowed from my local library service (well, not immediately local as they don’t offer e-books, so I had to join a second neighbouring service). In the latter context, through correspondence with the digital lending specialist at the library, I have recently become aware of the existence of publisher-imposed limits on ebook lending and the need for the library to rebuy the ebooks after a relatively small number of loans which is nothing short of scandalous. My library also uses OverDrive – maybe all libraries over here do, but I was interested to see your comments about 3M and wondered if you know whether 3M offers services in the UK too? I also wondered whether you may be able to explain what you meant by ‘its willingness to sacrifice user privacy in exchange for serving titles to Kindles ‘? I am interested to understand libraries’ relationship with Amazon – over here it seems that libraries cannot offer formats suitable for Kindle devices.
    Anyway, aside from all of that, thanks again for your efforts with the boycott and for the article.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. If you haven’t seen it already, you may be interested in a matrix, maintained by Rob Maier, of the Big 5’s ebook lending terms (the matrix is linked at the end of the post).

      Based on its Cloud Library website, it appears that 3M is only available in the US and Canada right now.

      When library cardholders want to borrow a Kindle-formatted (i.e., MOBI) ebook via OverDrive, they not only have to authenticate themselves via Adobe (using their Adobe ID, which is necessary for all OverDrive-based ebook checkouts), they also have to authenticate themselves with their Amazon ID. I defer to Sarah Houghton’s explanation about why this is a problem.