Is It Time for the Digital Book Market to Change?

Time for Digital Market to Change

News that Macmillan has enacted an embargo, allowing libraries to purchase only one copy of new e-books for the first two months after release, has rocked the bookish community.  With the news that John Sargent and Macmillan plan to forge ahead despite protests comes even more intriguing news; the United States Congress is looking at the state of the digital market, and the American Library Association (ALA) has testified that outdated policies have made it possible for companies to limit public access to content.  While the ALA mentions the Macmillan embargo, the scope of their report to Congress goes far beyond that, arguing that action must be taken to ensure that libraries are able to purchase–or even allowed to purchase–content in order to provide equal access.  Below are some areas of concern that the ALA has identified.

E-Book Pricing

The ALA notes that libraries pay far above consumer retail price for e-book licenses that typically expire after a few years.

Exclusive Content on Amazon and Streaming Services

The ALA notes that some content is available only to paying subscribers, such that created by authors exclusively for Amazon or that streamed through services like Netflix, Hulu, or Spotify.  They argue that companies that refuse to sell to libraries are keeping valuable or cultural resources from the public.  They also note that refusal to sell to libraries prevents libraries from making preservation copies; some media may go out of existence when companies close.

Academic Publishing

The ALA notes that five publishers control the majority of scholarly journals being published and that they often lock libraries into restrictive multi-year deals, meaning libraries pay incredibly high prices with little room for negotiation.  Furthermore, libraries pay varying prices for these journals, but are prohibited from sharing their prices with each other by non-disclosure agreements.

Textbook Pricing

The  ALA notes that three companies control the textbook market and that at least two are trying to move all textbooks to digital in order to eliminate competition by the used book market.

Student Privacy Concerns

The ALA suggests that textbook companies are capturing student data through their online platforms.  Sometimes this is done through quizzes that students may take.  More regulation is needed.


The ALA report is a reminder that the digital market can change.  Even though the public has grown accustomed to issues such as the inability to access scholarly research or the inability to view or listen certain content without paying for a streaming subscription, these are scenarios that have arisen because the rules that managed the physical marketplace do not always work for the digital marketplace.  New legislation could try to break the hold that a few companies have over how digital content is distributed or withheld.  Perhaps, in time, equal access to information may seem as normal as the current state of affairs.

What do you think?  Is new legislation needed in the digital marketplace?

2 thoughts on “Is It Time for the Digital Book Market to Change?

  1. bookbeachbunny says:

    Hm the only thing I might disagree and play devils advocate on is the exclusive content for subscribers. I’ve been reading a lot about how the digital market is effecting movies but that is more business/business/consumer. It’s interesting to see how this will clash with a huge public institution like the ALA legally and in PR ways.
    I think the embargo might really come back to the bite the publishers in the end.


    • Krysta says:

      Part of me wonders if selling copies of subscriber content to libraries would make a huge difference. Streaming services are appealing, for instance, because they give a lot of content without patrons having to go pick up a DVD they have to watch in a limited time frame. And Netflix at least is relatively cheap. So I think the people who would borrow a Netflix show on DVD are people who were never able to or going to buy a subscription anyway. So maybe Netflix could actually make more money by selling some DVDs to libraries. But who knows.


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