Will the Macmillan E-Book Embargo Help Authors?

Macmillan embargo effects

The Macmillan e-book embargo began on November 1. If you haven’t heard of it, the embargo means that Macmillan will allow libraries to buy only one e-book copy 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 when hype and demand for them is at their highest, so frustrated library patrons will be forced to buy the books if they want to read them.

Mamillan CEO John Sargent initially justified the embargo by arguing that libraries hurt sales and that the embargo will help authors.  When librarians and library patrons fought back, he asserted that, if the e-book is unavailable at the library, 8% of library patrons will choose to buy it instead.  The Authors Guild welcomed the embargo, stating, “If, as Macmillan has determined, 45% of ebook reads are occurring through libraries and that percentage is only growing, it means that we are training readers to read ebooks for free through libraries instead of buying them. With author earnings down to new lows, we cannot tolerate ever-decreasing book sales that result in even lower author earnings.” (Frustrated librarians pointed out that libraries purchase their e-books, often at rates far higher than the average consumer price–and, because licenses typically expire within two years, they must keep repurchasing these books.)

The Authors Guild stance is partially based on a misunderstanding that people can borrow e-books from around the country and the world (not true: most are license only to specific library systems, so they can’t be borrowed by non-patrons or sometimes even non-residents) and the belief that having one copy for one library or library consortium would not have an effect on patrons, even though this policy means that, in some cases, entire states will be allowed only one copy of a book for eight weeks after release: “Macmillan’s new licensing scheme will still allow libraries to obtain a digital copy of new books in the first eight weeks, so readers who can’t afford to buy books and who can’t get to the library to take out print copies should not be impacted.”  But, ultimately, the stance was simply about buying into the unsubstantiated claim that libraries hurt authors: “We look forward to seeing how this new program affects readership—and ultimately, authors’ royalties.”  (The Authors Guild later responded to backlash by asserting that they love and appreciate libraries.)

What Sargent’s argument fails to detail, however, is exactly which authors will benefit from an embargo.  Many readers do not actively follow the book market and do not know which authors publish with Macmillan or which titles are due for release.  They rely on browsing the library catalog to see what new books are available. If libraries chose to boycott Macmillan’s embargoed titles (and many have), patrons will simply never know if a Macmillan book was published, and they will go on to check out a different book from a different publisher.  Indeed, even if a library does not boycott the Macmillan titles, many library patrons will very likely see a year-long wait list for a book and check out a different book.  The main reason library patrons would likely chose to purchase an embargoed title is if they already know the author or had heard of a hotly-anticipated title.  In other words, the authors benefiting from the embargo will probably be bestselling authors–the authors who need a pay increase the least.

Meanwhile, midlist and debut authors publishing with Macmillan are more likely to be impacted negatively by the embargo because they will lack the free marketing done on their behalf by libraries.  Recent data indicates that bestsellers are now making up most of publishers’ sales and that publishers consequently put most of their marketing power behind those bestsellers.  Readers may only hear of some midlist books if they see them at the library.  To emphasize how important a role libraries play in marketing, Sari Feldman, former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library writes that,

“At my former library…we recently calculated the value of the marketing support we provide for debut authors, using metrics such as website impressions, in-branch promotions, and comparable paid advertising. The total came to more than $10,000 in value, on average. And, we offer this support for free. That’s $10,000 in value is just for one library system in one metropolitan area.”

But, without the opportunity to see or check out debut or midlist titles, patrons will miss out on discovering new authors.  Readers who like to try out new authors through the library before purchasing will spend their money on other publishers whose books are available and marketed to them.  And research does suggest that readers discovering books through libraries helps sales.  For example, the Panorama Project reports that the April 2018 Big Library Read (an initiative in which an e-book is made available to all patrons of participating libraries through Overdrive, no wait lists) resulted in increased sales for the pick, Jennifer McGaha’s Flat Broke with Two Goats:

  • “818% growth in ebook sales from March to April, 2018.

  • 201% growth in print sales from March to April, 2018.

  • Sustained retail sales above pre-campaign (January–March 2018) volumes:

    • April–June 2018 ebook sales continued at 720% above pre-campaign volumes.

    • April–June 2018 print sales continued at 38% percent above pre-campaign volumes.”

Being readily available in the library catalog helped sales for this title, rather than hurting them.  Yet Macmillan is positioning libraries as the enemies of authors.

Libraries help readers discover new books that are worth reading, but not marketed heavily because they are not bestsellers.  The Macmillan embargo may encourage readers to buy new titles by big-name authors, but patrons are not likely going to purchase books they have never heard of and are not sure they will like.  Instead, patrons will probably simply check out a different e-book–and ultimately put their purchasing power behind titles that are not embargoed.

13 thoughts on “Will the Macmillan E-Book Embargo Help Authors?

  1. Maude B. says:

    Honestly, if I see a wait list for an ebook of more than 2 moths, I give up and check out something else. I really do believe that this is a bad move, I’m just hoping they’ll realize it in time to not hurt authors and libraries too much.


  2. Grab the Lapels says:

    What’s funny is all of a sudden I heard about Flat Broke with Two Goats EVERYWHERE. I think their campaign worked! The thing about long waits for a book is sure, I’ll wait. I have no problem waiting. But by the time I review the book, it’s old news, and so the free marketing that I do on Goodrads and my blog is pretty much worthless. That’s another issue. Buzz can’t happen when people don’t have a book.

    I think you’re also right about lots of people not know who publishes which books. I’m not paying attention to The Big Five. I know they publish books. Yay. I pay attention to books that come out from small presses that get more buzz and rise to commercial success. But other than that, I’m not a Macmillan loyalist. Why should I be? These publishers don’t have unique branding that I know of.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, Macmillan made the embargo the first eight weeks to build on buzz, but I think many people don’t know new books are even out until they see them somewhere. I follow the book market in a general kind of way and I still have moments of, “Oh, yeah! Book X came out!” only because I see it on the “new” shelf at the library. Avid readers likely have so many books they are anticipating, it’s easy enough to overlook a release date. So how does buzz build if e-book readers don’t see new releases in the catalog? Or don’t have a chance to read a release when it’s still new? And, then, as you note, by the time they can get around to reviewing, the buzz will be over.

      I think a lot of people don’t even know who the Big Five are or that there are big publishers at all. Most people, I assume, read by title or author, and not by publisher. I have a general idea of publishers and sometimes imprints that I like more or less than others, but I still usually choose new reads by book summary since most reviews don’t even mention a publisher name. If I want to go by publisher and look at upcoming releases, I have to go to Publishers Weekly, but I don’t think most people are actively scanning that for Macmillan’s seasonal releases. I definitely don’t know what Macmillan’s been releasing since the embargo. I’d have to go look it up on purpose!


  3. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    As someone who works at a library, I can attest that 99% of people (at least around here) do not know about new releases except for authors they love and specifically watch out for. Heck, even my coworkers have no idea about what books are coming out. It’s pretty much just me lol.

    But for the sake of this, let’s take a non-Macmillan book as an example, only because this is a recent one. Our library is tiny, so we have just one copy of House of Salt and Sorrows. It’s now overdue, even though I have a hold on it, but since it’s not come back and is now months overdue, I don’t expect to read it anytime soon. So I tried to get an ebook of it. Now, my library’s Overdrive is statewide, and it also has one copy of House of Salt and Sorrows. Which had 27 holds on it before I put mine on. I’m at 28. My estimated wait time is 6 months. Even knowing this … am I going to go out and buy this book? No. Because while I’m interested in reading it, and I specifically went out looking for it because I’ve seen people talking about it, I’m not so interested in it that I can’t wait for a maximum of six months in order to read it.

    And there we have the problem with this notion. This presumes that people will be so desperate to read Macmillan titles that they can’t wait and will need to buy it. I’ve offered to put a hold on a book for someone with the premise that it’ll be about two weeks until they get the book, and they’ve told me never mind, they’ll just read something else. xD


    • Krysta says:

      Exactly! If I’m really looking forward to a book, I will add myself to a long wait list because, hey, I have way too many other books to be reading while I wait! If I’m not that excited about a title, however, I will check out another book.

      I can see people deciding to purchase a really hot title rather than wait, you know, two years because that’s what Overdrive is estimating with only one copy available for an entire state. But, I think the average library patron is going to wait or find something else.

      I did like that one library system that is boycotting titles explained that their boycott is in part because they don’t want patrons to be confused by a lengthy hold list. Because Macmillan is hoping people see that and purchase, because they don’t realize the hold list could shrink significantly after eight weeks if the library decides to purchase additional copies. So some libraries said they’re just going to wait until the eight weeks are over and then buy multiple copies, so patrons don’t freak out.

      I think this will work in part because a good many people won’t even realize it’s been eight weeks since publication.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        I like the idea of the library that plans on buying more after the eight weeks. Especially if they do a little public educating and let their patrons know what’s going on, so they realize, hey, there will be ridiculous wait times for a couple weeks and then it’ll be chopped right down.

        But I definitely agree. It seems like we book bloggers and librarians are about the only ones that actually know when things are being released. And sometimes we even can’t remember. xD


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