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.