Recent months have had librarians reeling from the news that new e-content metering restrictions, along with embargoes by Blackstone Audio and Macmillan, will limit the ability of libraries to provide information to their patrons. Simon and Schuster and Hachette moved from a perpetual model (in which libraries purchase the license to content and then keep it forever) to one that forces libraries to re-purchase a license to their e-content every two years. (Penguin Random House began metering last year.) Meanwhile, Blackstone struck a deal with Amazon in which titles published (not distributed) by Blackstone would be available exclusively only on Audible for the first three months after release. And Macmillan announced that, beginning November 1, libraries would be allowed only one copy of new e-book releases for two months after publication. The policy is currently understood to apply also to consortiums, so library systems that share e-book catalogs would be allowed one copy for multiple libraries.
All these changes have had libraries wondering how they will continue to promote equal access when major publishers deny them the opportunity to purchase certain materials. But libraries were already struggling with the inability to access certain resources when Audible (owned by Amazon) announced last year that they were acquiring exclusive content from big-name authors like Margaret Atwood and Michael Lewis. Currently, libraries are unable to purchase and share original Audible content, meaning that readers who wish to listen to it have to pay a subscription. Those who are unable to afford the subscription simply cannot read certain new titles.
Allowing libraries to purchase Audible titles should not hurt Amazon’s bottom line. Despite the fact that libraries lend materials free, they do pay for them (often above market price for e-content); Library Journal says that libraries spend 1.35 billion dollars each year on building their collections. Some of that money could be going to Audible, if they would remove their restrictions on library lending. In the meantime, however, the question emerges: should authors create original content for Audible, knowing that libraries are prevented from sharing that content with people with lower incomes?
Authors, of course, need to make money. And they deserve to paid for their creative endeavors. No one can blame them if Amazon offers them a good deal (even if Amazon has a track record of hurting publishers). I wonder, however, if some of the big-name authors could use their popularity to pressure Amazon into creating a model that promotes, rather than prevents, equal access. Because if we remain silent too long about all the changes affecting libraries’ abilities to pay for content, this will become our new normal. And the fight for equal access will have taken a huge step back.