Why Should We Care about the Macmillan E-Book Embargo?

Why Care about the Macmillan Ebook Embargo

Starting in November 2019, Macmillan announced an embargo on all new e-book titles.  Libraries will be allowed to buy only one copy of new e-books for the first two months after release, no matter how large the library system or how many patrons it serves.  Only after the initial hype has died down will libraries be allowed to buy additional copies.  Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent argues that this step is necessary because libraries are decreasing e-book sales.  In essence, he is hoping that library patrons annoyed by long waits for e-books will buy the books instead.  (Steve Potash, CEO of Overdrive, questions Macmillan’s assertion that libraries decrease e-book sales.)

This announcement has met with loud resistance from librarians, but has been generally overlooked by the public.  Macmillan’s new business model, however, has troubling implications–ones that could become more widespread should other publishers decide to follow its lead.

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Why Should WE Care about the macmillan e-book embargo? (Even If we don’t borrow library e-books)

The Macmillan e-book embargo negatively impacts the ability of libraries to serve their communities and provide equal access.  Even as libraries have evolved over their years, their core mission to provide access to materials, education, and information to everyone, regardless of income or socioeconomic background, has not changed.  The Macmillan e-book embargo prevents equal access by forcing people to pay for books; those without the means to do so will have to do without, or possibly wait months for the chance to read a popular new title.

The gap between the very wealthy and the very poor in the U.S. shows no immediate signs of narrowing.  Libraries are one of the remaining institutions in the U.S. that seek to reduce this gap.  Even if you do not personally need the library, even if you can choose to buy the e-books Macmillan withholds from libraries, libraries still benefit you. Creating equal access to resources and knowledge helps the community as a whole, enabling more people to graduate, more people to find employment, more people to learn a necessary language, and more people to seek help from other community organizations and resources. All these things create a better quality of life in a community and can possibly boost the local economy.   In short, supporting the library means lifting up the entire community.

The Macmillan e-book embargo may seem like a minor annoyance, an obnoxious way to frustrate library patrons into purchasing Macmillan’s titles instead of borrowing them.  However, the policy has long-term implications that threaten the mission of libraries to provide equal access.  Accepting this policy as our new reality means accepting that some will have to continue to do without.  Some will continue to be left behind.  Anyone who believes that social inequality must be eliminated should oppose Macmillan’s embargo, even if they have never checked out a library e-book.

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What Can You Do?

Contact Macmillan (Tweet, Email, Write!)

If you disagree with the Macmillan embargo, let them know!  You can reach out to them at Twitter, email them, or even send snail mail to their office.   The American Library Association (ALA) has all the ways you can contact Macmillan.  It’s important that library patrons, as well as library workers, speak up!

Blog about the Issue

Blogging is what bloggers do best, right?  Plenty of people may have missed the news about the Macmillan embargo, especially if they do not follow industry news. Get the word out to fellow bloggers and library lovers by letting them know!  The more we talk about this issue, the more Macmillan will understand that people are willing to protect equal access and to reject a business model that purposefully creates consumer frustration to drive sales. (We first blogged about the Macmillan e-book embargo in early August.)

Tell Everyone You Know in Real Life

Informing people about the issue means more people can voice their disagreement to Macmillan.  It also can help libraries, so patrons know that their frustration with long hold lists should not be taken out on librarians who wish they could buy more copies of titles, but cannot. Casual conversations about this issue may have more of an impact than you realize.  I mentioned the Macmillan embargo to two employees at my local library–neither had heard of it. General readers who do not follow industry news are even less likely to be aware of the issue.  So bring up the news with your friends, family, and colleagues!  You never know what action they might be inspired to take.


Perhaps the obvious strategy to informing companies that you disagree with their policies is to boycott them.  After all, money speaks. In this case, however, readers may be hesitant to boycott because such a move may also negatively impact authors and publishers.  So readers will have to decide for themselves if they think it ethical to boycott.  One solution, however, might be not to boycott the entire company, but instead to boycott only e-books, buying physical copies of books instead.

33 thoughts on “Why Should We Care about the Macmillan E-Book Embargo?

  1. alilovesbooks says:

    I had no idea about this so thank you for sharing. I have to confess I’ve never really understood how library ebooks work. It has always seemed like there are different rules for different publishers and not being in the industry I’m completely oblivious to it all. I do expect there to be a wait for new books but this is no doubt only going to make things worse. I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford to buy but only tend to buy books I’m certain about (known authors etc) and use the library for those that are more of a risk. As well as the social issues, this can only hurt authors too. If there’s a long wait for a library copy, I just won’t bother. There are plenty of other books I haven’t read I don’t have to wait for.


    • Krysta says:

      There are different rules for different publishers in that most now provide metered, rather than perpetual access. So, in order to replicate the process of libraries having to replace physical books, most publishers have a policy that says something like, “You can have the book for two years, or 54 lends, whichever happens first.” This is kind of silly, though, because most physical copies last longer than this and libraries aren’t necessarily able to keep track of what titles expired and should be replaced.

      Macmillan is the first of the Big Five publishers to experiment with an embargo, but, if they say it’s successful, we could see the others follow, which would make it nearly impossible to borrow new e-book titles from the library. Which would disproportionately affect the homebound, those with disabilities that make e-reading easier, and those without the money to pay for every new release. I wish Macmillan would consider that. I know they’re a business and need to make money, but libraries do pay for their copies (more than the market price) and they create new purchasers by introducing audiences to new titles or series, creating readers, and focusing on midlist authors (which a chain bookstore like Barnes and Noble doesn’t, really).

      Also, good point. We don’t really know if authors will get many more purchases or if frustrated patrons will just check out a different book. Maybe they’ll buy a really beloved author, but not a new one or a midlist one.

      Also, I read a good point by an author writing about the embargo in the Chicago Tribune. Authors are paid in advances, meaning publishers guess how much money a book will make and pay them that. They don’t actually earn royalties until the advance has been earned back. Most authors never earn back the advance, so most authors are already paid as much as they’re going to be paid; checking out the e-book instead of buying doesn’t hurt their income.


  2. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    Thank you once again for spreading awareness of this issue, Krysta! You’ve provided so much insight about this issue, and about the methods by which libraries aquire ebooks. I’ll definitely try my best to inform others about this pressing issue! ❤


    • Krysta says:

      I’m glad! As I wrote, two of my librarians didn’t know!! (I also got the impression they didn’t care because they don’t purchase the e-books, sadly.)


    • Krysta says:

      Yes! Or years! Even though libraries can purchase additional (metered) copies after two months, by then they’re onto the newer releases; they’re not thinking about stuff they bought and need to buy again. Many librarians go by professional guides for purchasing. These guides aren’t saying, “Oh, yes, Macmillan’s two-month embargo expired today, so get more of that book!” And, because every library gets one initial copy, regardless of size, you could have one e-book copy for, say, everyone served by the New York Public Library! That waitlist is never going to end.

      Also worth thinking about is that the policy disproportionately affects the homebound (assuming their library has no homebound delivery service) and those with a disability making ebooks a better option than physical books. They can’t just put a hold on the physical book.


  3. whatthelog says:

    Oh wow, I’d not heard about this before! This is really discouraging. You’d think that a publisher would want to collaborate with libraries, rather than actively work against them!!


    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s a short-sighted policy in that they are hoping for short-term profit, but are losing out long-term because readers use libraries to find and test out new authors. Libraries also tend to buy more midlist authors than bookstores (I went into Barnes and Noble the other day and, if it’s not a bestseller, they weren’t really stocking it). You really don’t want to lose out on libraries’ purchasing powering because you’re mistakenly seeing then as an enemy instead of an advocate.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Terézia says:

    wow… I am not from the US nor do local libraries allow me to borrow ebooks but oh boy… this is deeply upsetting. as you have written, the libraries allow a certain amount of equal standing for all of its members, and making such steps as macmillan does right now is a step backwards. do you mind if I reblog?


    • Krysta says:

      Thanks for sharing! Could you possibly use the reblog button so only an excerpt appears on your blog? I’m also concerned about the addition of the Macmillan logo since I’m not sure how Macmillan would feel about that….


  5. Mei-Mei says:

    Reblogged this on Jedi by Knight and commented:
    Do you guys remember how annoyed I was that I couldn’t get Vicious because of the Tor ebook embargo? Yeah, it’s only going to get worse. This is an important post to read if you enjoy getting ebooks from the library.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I had no idea. Is there an Embargo like this on physical books? Are they limited on the numbers of physical books they can purchase of a certain title? I also want to know if there is proof that libraries cause a drop in e-sales. If that is true then I would at least understand the need for the Embargo, though I would still disagree with the hard limit. If there is a limit it should be based on the libraries size! I will have to look into this, it is super interesting! Thanks!


    • Krysta says:

      There’s no limit to purchases of physical books. It does seem interesting that Macmillan is not claiming libraries cause a drop in sales because of their physical books–perhaps that would read too much like an attack on the very existence of libraries. And, so far, Macmillan hasn’t provided the data they used, so no one can tell how they determined that libraries are responsible for a drop in e-book sales.

      It’s also worth nothing that authors are typically paid in advances; they only earn royalties after they earn back the advance. The majority of authors will never earn back the advance, so they’ve already earned all they ever will, regardless of whether or not libraries stock their books as e-books.

      It is weird (read: sketchy) that Macmillan is implying that it is solely libraries lending e-books that is keeping authors from earning more money. Well, they’d have to be lending an astronomical number of e-books to be the sole reason an author doesn’t earn back their advance.

      Or, in other words, this about Macmillan making more money and has nothing to do with giving authors more money.


  7. DoingDewey says:

    Great post! I’d just like to add that not only are people who can’t afford e-books most impacted, this will also be particularly hard on patrons with mobility issues or other challenges that prevent them from getting to the library to check out physical books.


  8. Elysa says:

    I haven’t seen their evidence for how library ebooks affect sales of ebooks, and I’d like to because it feels like they’re making libraries scapegoats for decreasing sales. Libraries were already limited on the numbers of ebook copies they can buy, and people aren’t clamoring to check out ebook copies. In fact, if we have an ebook copy, they usually ask for a physical copy instead.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, it’s a little hard to believe that it’s only libraries creating a decrease in sales. In a new twist, Bibliotheca is saying Amazon must be pressuring publishers to see libraries as a threat to sales: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/81046-bibliotheca-calls-out-amazon-for-meddling-in-the-library-e-book-market.html.

      And I’ve seen the same. People often seem to prefer the physical copy if they are able to go to the library/read physical books.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think Macmillan is also overlooking the number of library patrons who don’t particularly care what they read; they just want a book. A lot of people just walk into a library and look around and grab what looks interesting. If it’s not there, they’re not going to read it. Similarly, if they see there “*is* an ebook but it has a one year wait on it, a lot of people are just going to shrug their shoulders and borrow something else. The limited copies thing might work for bestsellers or huge authors like Stephen King or something if a lot of people WILL just go and buy the book rather than than wait, but I don’t get doing it for the entire list. If there’s a book that looks vaguely interesting but it’s a debut and I don’t really know anything about it, I’m not going to buy it, and I’m not going to wait half a century to read it. I’m going to read something else.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        Right. That’s part of what makes this a short-sighted policy. Midlist and debut authors lose the chance for library patrons to find them, love them, and maybe later buy them. It’s likely library patrons simply will never read these authors now, hurting them in the long-term.

        I also think it’s a stretch to suggest that library patrons will buy all the books. Again, maybe if it’s a popular author or a bestseller. Or maybe they will just check out a different e-book.


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