The Macmillan E-Book Embargo Won’t Be Cancelled; the ALA Continues the Fight

Macmillan Ebook Embargo Update

The Macmillan e-book embargo starts November 1.  If you haven’t heard of it, the embargo means that Macmillan will allow libraries to buy only one copy of an e-book for the first eight weeks after publication.  This copy will be a perpetual access copy (meaning libraries can keep it in their collections indefinitely) and will cost $30. After eight weeks, libraries will have the ability to purchase metered copies, which means they can keep the license for two years or 52 lends, whichever comes first.  The cost for a metered copy will be $60.  The purpose of the embargo is to create long wait times for e-books so frustrated library patrons will be forced to buy the book if they want to read it.

This new policy is greatly concerning to libraries since wait lists for e-books are often already months long, even with their ability to buy multiple copies.  Now, large library systems such as New York City or Los Angeles, will be allowed only one copy for all their patrons for the first eight weeks after publication.  Smaller libraries who joined a consortium to provide e-books to patrons will have one copy per consortium; this means, in some cases, that one copy of an e-book may be available for the entire state!  Patrons who cannot afford to buy e-books and patrons who rely on e-books because of disabilities will be affected the most.

Macmilllan’s announcement lead strong backlash from libraries and their patrons, as well as a petition that has over 150,000 signatures as of this writing.  However, Macmillan’s CEO, John Sargent, has responded to librarians in a letter justifying the need to restrict library patrons’ access to e-books.  He reiterates his claim that e-book lending is “frictionless,” leading library patrons to borrow rather than buy, but elaborates upon it by explaining that library patrons must drive to the library to borrow physical books and perhaps pay late fines on them.  The implication is that now people are borrowing e-books more because it is more convenient than borrowing physical books. And Macmillan is upset that people are not buying e-books instead, even though they realize libraries do pay for the e-books (usually above market price for metered access, as explained above).

To me, the letter shows a clear lack of understanding about how libraries work and who uses them–and why.  Because, first of  all, e-book lending is not nearly so convenient as Sargent suggests.  New titles in particular often have months-long wait lists, even with libraries purchasing multiple copies.  Patrons who want an immediate download are very likely already in a situation where they would have to buy the book instead.  Or they might have to borrow the physical copy, which is often available when the e-book is not.  And, even though e-books have no late fees because they automatically return, many libraries are going fine free altogether.  Why?  Because the fines disproportionately affect the people who need the library the most, the ones who can’t afford to spend an extra $5.00 this week because they forgot to return a pile of materials.  People who really want to avoid a late fee because they can’t afford it were never going to buy the book, anyway.  So e-books are not necessarily more convenient than physical books, they are not necessarily less risky than physical books in terms of late fees, and they are not necessarily being downloaded by people with large amounts of extra cash to be used for purchasing.

Seeing every e-book lend as a lost sale simply does not make sense.  Avid readers with money often use the library to try out new authors or titles, and then they go on to purchase books or authors they enjoyed.  Readers without much purchasing power were never going to buy the book in the first place.  The library stocking books (with money from their taxpayers–the books were paid for!) helps authors and publishers in the long run because they allow readers to find new books they might not otherwise have wanted to or been able to try.  Libraries foster a culture of reading, nourishing readers who often go on to buy books when they are able.  To prevent libraries from stocking books may create a short-term profit for Macmillan (presumably mostly for big name and well-known authors, whom readers are willing to risk their money on; debut and midlist authors may not see much of a spike in sales).  But it will ultimately hurt authors and publishers when readers lack the ability to find new books through the library.

The American Library Association (ALA), however, continues to fight for equal access.  Congress has been investigating competition in the digital market and the ALA provided testimony.  Their report notes that the digital divide is growing due to unfair market practices.  Specifically, the ALA calls out Amazon for prohibiting libraries from purchasing their content and notes that streaming services prevent libraries from giving access to patrons, and prevent libraries from preserving content that could disappear when a company goes out of business.  They also note the Macmillan e-book embargo and the astronomically high prices charged by publishers for e-books, in contrast to print books.  The final pages are devoted to examining the state of academic publishing, textbook prices, and they ways in which student privacy may be violated when using e-textbooks.  The ALA suggests that unfair pricing and limitations placed on libraries are happening because a few key players currently control the marketplace.

For now, the Macmillan e-book embargo will go forward.  If library patrons continue to protest, however, and if more libraries and patrons join in boycotting the embargoed books, change could still happen.  Change must happen, lest the other Big Five publishers follow in Macmillan’s footsteps and create embargoes of their own.

18 thoughts on “The Macmillan E-Book Embargo Won’t Be Cancelled; the ALA Continues the Fight

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    Macmillan really does not consider the real world implications of their embargo. Personally, I can afford to buy a few new books when I want to, but when I am trying work by a new-to-me author, I almost always go to the library first, just in case I don’t like it. If I end up liking the author’s work, I will buy their books in the future. But if I didn’t have the library to start with, I wouldn’t have found them in the first place.

    Library ebooks are even more critical for the poor, disabled, and (as in my very rural home state of Nebraska) those who live far from the nearest library or bookstore, who can’t just pop into a bookstore to buy the latest new release.

    And let’s not get into the outlandish price of ebooks, which should be a fraction of they price they are.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I genuinely think this is a person who has not used a library for a long time and, in fact, might not know other people who use libraries. As the head of Macmillan, he does have the money to buy any book he wants to read–and he probably has the option never to buy a single book at all. Any book published by Macmillan is free to him, as are many other books from other publishers, which he is likely to be sent by other friends in publishing. I know people in lower-level jobs at publishing houses who simply have no need to seek out reading material because so many free books come their way that they are overwhelmed. So, unless you want something kind of obscure you’d have to buy or check a library for, you have no need to bother.

      And the letter indicates he doesn’t really understand libraries or, well, people who are poor. He thinks that driving to the library was a detriment that meant people would just buy books when ebooks didn’t exist–except you’d have to drive to a bookstore, too, especially before online ordering was common. He thinks that fines prevent people from using libraries and means people will just buy books. He doesn’t realize that anyone truly concerned about a 10 cent fine does not HAVE the money to buy a $20 book. He also fails to realize that libraries going fine free is a big trend these days. He also thinks getting ebooks from the library is “instantaneous” and devalues books. The idea point is that, in large library systems, they can currently have five or more copies of a popular ebook and you are still looking at a 3 month wait to get it. Making an entire library system like NYC or San Francisco or the state of Maryland share one copy is asking patron to wait years to get it.

      Basically…this guy knows nothing about libraries and how people actually use them. Sure, a small library that only needs one copy will be happy to have one cheap copy, but there is no way this is “good” for larger library systems or that librarians “agreed” to the embargo, as he suggests.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, same! I primarily buy authors I already know I like. Without the library giving exposure to debut and midlist authors, I don’t think they will see their sales go up significantly from this move.

      Yes! I think some people forget not everyone can choose to buy instead of using the library!


  2. Shaye Miller says:

    I don’t even know what to say. This is so disappointing. Just another way to stick it to the poor. Frankly, I’m surprised there isn’t more chatter in my librarian circles. 😦


    • Krysta says:

      It’s almost like the CEO forgot some people can’t afford to buy all the e-books they want? Every time someone insults libraries, I can’t help but think, well, yeah, they’re lucky enough not to need a library–but not everyone is. And they should remember that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Captain's Quarters says:

    “because they allow readers to find new books they might not otherwise have wanted to or been able to try” – exactly. I read over a hundred books a year if possible. I do not have the money to buy every book I want. I like that libraries’ purchases still give author’s money for their work unlike buying at a used bookstore. I have so many authors that I would never have bought if I hadn’t taken a chance on a library book first. And while I am not poor, I have lived in some extremely poor neighborhoods where the library was the only chance for folks to read and get resources like computers etc. And frankly a lot of money goes to publishers already because the libraries around the country buy the books for their patrons. With no libraries how much money would they have? The CEO kinda sounds like an idiot.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’m baffled by the suggestion that everyone who borrows e-books could just as easily buy them. No… I read over 100 books a year, sometimes more (picture books, haha!). I cannot buy all these books, even if I wanted to. The library allows me to read and review them, though, giving the publishers and authors free marketing through my blog. The library introduces me to new authors whom I might spend money on, sometimes for me, sometimes as gifts. But I am wary of buying books from authors I don’t know, so this move will likely hurt debut authors the most.


  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    Was it Pages Unbound that wrote a post about why e-books aren’t really that much cheaper to produce, and thus the prices shouldn’t be a lot lower that physical books? I was telling my techie husband about that topic just the other day, and his mind was so confused as to why an e-book should cost so much. I couldn’t remember the details.

    I’ve wasted SO MUCH MONEY over the course of my college years buying new books from small presses in the hopes that they were good. Many were duds that I put in the Little Free Library after a couple of chapters. Had I been able to get those books from the library, even through an ILL, I would have likely purchased the book after I read it. I’m VERY anti-buying books right now.


    • Krysta says:

      That does sound like a post we wrote, yes… My understanding is that the price of books is usually for the editing, illustrating, marketing, etc. and not really for the cost of the paper. I think maybe people would have understood this initially except Amazon used to sell e-books extremely cheaply and so people came to accept that e-books should only be $2 or whatever.

      Yeah, I’m always disappointed when I buy a book and I don’t like it because, well, they aren’t cheap. I am happy to purchase and support authors when I can, but I do want to like the book! So my purchases tend to be authors I already know and love from the library.

      I think what Macmillan hasn’t considered is that this move may make money, but probably only for big name authors or highly anticipated releases. Debut authors and midlist authors will have fewer people desperate to get their books immediately–probably library patrons will simply check out a different e-book and so never read some of these authors.


      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I think the reason I associate physical books with costing more is because if I get a paperback at around $20 and a hardcover edition at around $30, that indicates to me that paper, binding, etc. have something to do with the price. I know Amazon has super cheap e-books, but I thought many of those were self-published through Amazon (not that this changes people’s perception of e-book cost), but it didn’t seem like something traditional publishers were communicating. The trick I often see is authors selling their first book in a series for $1-$2 and then upping the price for each of the next books to around $10.


        • Krysta says:

          That’s a good point about the cost difference between paper and hardback. I don’t know how much is paper/cover cost and how much is because hardcovers tend to go on sale first when hype is high, so maybe they collect more money? Another interesting thing is that children’s books tend to cost less money than adult books (though YA is comparable to adult books, I think). Usually I see people saying this is so kids can afford to buy books, not that it’s because the books are maybe shorter. But it does suggest that maybe adult books could be cheaper, if we’re just looking at paper costs, if a similarly sized kids book is cheaper. But the prices are being set for other reasons, known only to publishers?

          I remember when e-books were new, Amazon was selling a lot of them really cheap. I think publishers eventually protested and prices were raised, but, yeah, self-published authors tend to keep those low prices. I read one who said it worked for them to do that model where you hook your audience with a cheap first book, then raise the price.


          • Grab the Lapels says:

            I know that there was that pricing scandal with e-books that led to me getting some money out of a settlement because I had a Nook. It wasn’t much — maybe a dollar. The interesting thing about children’s books is they have high-quality paper and the illustrations can be quite detailed. I would think they would cost more! And I hate to tell the publisher this, but children don’t buy books, lol.


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