A Numbers Game

The life of an e-book

April 20, 2011

Joseph Janes

26 is a peculiar number. Mathematically speaking, it’s not that interesting; the Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers tells us it’s the sum of the digits of its cube (26^3 = 17576). Yawn. Wikipedia offers the atomic number of iron, the number of Swiss cantons or Oscars won by Walt Disney, or, alarmingly, the “number of space-time dimensions in bosonic string theory.”

Unless you’ve been living in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears, you know why the number 26 is of sudden concern to us. HarperCollins has announced it will magnanimously allow that many loans of its e-books before they go poof into the ether. The publisher must have calculated that that was the point at which its marginal profit per “copy” dropped beyond an acceptable limit, or was the rough equivalent of the number of loans a physical copy of a book could sustain. Or, HC made it up.

I’ll leave it to others to opine and speculate on the mercantile vs. ethical aspects of this PR gem; instead let’s think about why this has riled people up so much. Sure, it’s a shocker; the only other time I can remember publishers wanting to come to the library to pull stuff back was that government-document-reclassification foofah in 2006.  Typically, publishers want their stuff read, or maybe that’s a hopelessly old-fashioned perspective.

Basically, we don’t like to be told what to do, or how to manage our stuff.  There’s the rub, though; it’s not really our stuff any longer.  It’s theirs, and they’re just letting us pay for it, for a while.

In November 2005 (“From the Other Side of the Rubicon,”) I wrote: “To be honest, as we all know, it’s not like we really have a choice any more,” making the point that librarianship necessarily involved the internet and that there was no going back.  One could now say much the same about licensed access to databases, journals, and, apparently, e-books.  It’s clear what we have gained: broader accessibility, greater reach, more use. We also can cast a wan glance over our professional shoulder with nostalgia, wistfulness, and a tinge of regret for what we had when we bought stuff, owned it, kept it safe, and doled it out.

The HarperCollins announcement (and Amazon’s booting of Lendle) is at once a banal business decision and a profound marker in our ongoing relationship with works of creation. The Merry Wives of Windsor that sits on my shelf is the same one that the first Queen Elizabeth saw around 1601 and her namesake has no doubt read, along with Dickens and Swift and the Brontës and Orwell.

Now, without the apparatus of the Ministry of Truth, we can no longer be so sure. Books aren’t necessarily what are sold, they are what they are as of today. The bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn is a mere hint—what if that had been published as an authoritative version and nobody even knew it? Or noticed? Or cared?

So yes, it’s about the money—as it’s been since Gutenberg—though this time it’s also about the works themselves and who gets to be in charge of what they are, when, for whom, and how much.  Uncharted territory, this side of the river.

We all know that 26 is also the number of letters in the alphabet, miles in a marathon, and half a deck of cards.  Must…resist…temptation…to end with half-baked “running a marathon/playing with half a deck” reference….  Now if the number in question was 42, it’d make some literary sense…but that’s another story.

Joe Janes is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.



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