Shrinking or stagnant library budgets in the United States have made it increasingly difficult for libraries to purchase e-books, even as demand for them increases among patrons. The average consumer pays less for perpetual access to an e-book than a library system pays for what is typically metered access– an agreement that the e-book purchase expires after one or two years or a certain number of loans. This model is meant to ensure that publishers and authors continue to make money, the rationale being that libraries have to pay to replace physical copies due to wear-and-tear, and so should have to pay to replace e-books. Yet it seems obvious that the average library is hardly replacing each physical book after a year or two and that this model hurts libraries in the long run, as they cannot afford to replace e-books at such a rate. With new pricing and lending models being announced by several of the Big Five publishers, however, libraries will find themselves even more hard-pressed to purchase e-books for their patrons.
High prices and metered access already make it difficult for libraries to build and maintain e-book collections. In October 2018, Penguin Random House changed from a perpetual access model to a metered model in which libraries can keep a copy of an e-book for two years. In the process, they also slightly lowered e-book prices (for an adult title) from $65 to $55 according to American Libraries Magazine; YA titles were priced at $45 and children’s books at $35. The move was appreciated by some libraries who feel demand for titles decreases over time, but was met with more hesitation from other libraries who worry about having to pay repeatedly for a popular book. Meanwhile, Hachette, according to a July 2019 article in The Washington Post, now charges $65 for most adult titles, also for a two-year period. And Simon & Schuster announced that they will change from one-year metered access to a two-year model with prices ranging from $38.99 to $52.99 starting August 1, 2019. Additionally, Simon & Schuster will end perpetual access to audiobooks in favor of two-year access. In each of these cases, libraries typically pay far more than the average consumer for a title that ultimately expires, making it a challenge for them to provide all the e-books their patrons might wish.
However, it is the recent announcement by Macmillan that they will place a two-month embargo on libraries purchasing new e-book titles that is really concerning librarians. Last year, Macmillan experimented with a four-month ban on titles with its Tor imprint, saying libraries were hurting the company’s consumer sales. Macmillan CEO John Sargent says that the embargo led to increased sales for Tor e-books. So now Macmillan is repeating the claim that libraries decrease author payments. As a result, they are changing their lending model to encourage the public to buy titles they will not be able to borrow from their libraries.
Starting November 1, 2019, Macmillan will offer libraries one perpetual access copy of new titles for half price ($30) during the first two months after release. Once two months have passed, libraries can buy additional copies at full price ($60) for two years or 52 lends, whichever occurs first. Librarians have responded by arguing that demand for hot titles often decreases after time, making the opportunity to buy new titles two months after release of little use to their patrons. They also worry about being unable to provide enough copies for their patrons, and they question how Macmillan has come to the conclusion that libraries are negatively impacting e-book sales.
The American Library Association has spoken out against Macmillan’s embargo, urging library patrons to write to the publisher to request that they support the mission of libraries to provide equal access to all. For now, however, the future looks bleak for libraries and their patrons as publishers seems to view libraries as an opponent. But libraries are not opposed to publishers. They are the places where readers are created, where patrons discover new authors, where people learn to love and support reading. They are even, sometimes, places that create future buyers of books.