Does the Macmillan E-Book Embargo Disproportionately Affect Women?

Macmillan E-Book Embargo Affects

Starting on November 1, 2019, Macmillan announced an embargo on all new e-book titles.  Libraries will be allowed to buy only one copy of new e-books for the first two months after release, no matter how large the library system or how many patrons it serves.  Only after the initial hype has died down will libraries be allowed to buy additional copies. The move is intended to pressure library patrons to buy e-books when demand for them is at their highest, instead of borrowing them, as Macmillan CEO John Sargent claims that library loans are negatively affecting sales.

Given that I was aware both that more women report being readers than men, and that women are consistently more likely to be impoverished than men, I began to wonder if the Macmillan e-book embargo does not have an unintended consequence. I wondered if the embargo might unintentionally impact women more than men, keeping from them resources they may need more, since they are more likely to use the library and more likely to need to use the library. That is, if they read more, but have less money, they cannot just go out and buy books Macmillan is withholding from them.

To find out for certain if the embargo might disproportionately affect women, I tried to find some numbers.

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A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that, in the U.S., women are more likely to read than men. Only 22% of women had not read a book in the past 12 months while 32% of men–nearly a third–reported not having a read a book in the past 12 months. So a policy that withholds books from libraries could affect women more. But do women read e-books? And do they use the library to read their books?

Women are slightly more likely than men to read e-books. According to a 2019 survey, 27% of women reported having read an e-book in the past 12 months; 24% of men had read an e-book in the past 12 months. However, the survey does not distinguish exactly how many e-books individuals read over the course of the year, only that they read at least one. This means that we cannot say, based on the Pew Research Center survey, whether men or women read a greater number of e-books in total over the course of the year.

A 2018 survey by Yougov, however, indicates that American women report reading more books in general than American men. 34% of men said they read 1-5 books per year compared to 29% of women, and 18% of men reported reading 6-10 books per year, compared to 14% of women. 8% of men read 11-15 books, compared to 10% of women, and 5% of men read 16-20 books, compared to 8% of women. Only 2% of men read over 50 books per year, versus 9% of women. If women read more books in total, they may need access to the library more, since reading more books is more costly.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study shows that women are more likely to use the library than men. 51% of women reported using the library in the past 12 months, compared to only 38% of men. And 38% of women reported using the library website in the past 12 months, compared to 25% of men. So policies that affect libraries will affect women more than men.

Women tend to earn less than men, meaning that accessing materials through the library could be more important to them, since they have less disposable income to spend on books, even though they read more books than men. The U. S. Census Bureau reports that the median income of women in the past 12 months was $44,573, versus $55,608 for men.

Additionally, women are more likely to live in poverty than men. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that about 14% of women live below the poverty line and 12% of men live below the poverty line. I wondered if this meant that more women might rely on public transportation than on cars, since they have less money, but was unable to find data on this. My thought was that e-books could be more important to those without ready transportation to a local library. However, it is also possible that someone who does not own a car does not have Internet access at home to download e-books. We cannot say for certain that those living below the poverty line need more access to e-books in particular, based on the data I could find.


I could find no data available breaking down specifically how many e-books on average men and women check out from the library. But we do know that women tend to read more in general, tend to read e-books more, tend to use the library more, and tend to find themselves in financial circumstances that make purchasing non-essentials more difficult. Consequently, it does not seem far-fetch to suggest that the Macmillan e-book embargo does indeed disproportionately affect women, even though the company probably never intended such an effect.

What do you think?

14 thoughts on “Does the Macmillan E-Book Embargo Disproportionately Affect Women?

  1. Octavia @ Mythical Reads says:

    This was a very insightful post– I really appreciate how you went so far to gather all of these eye-opening statistics for us. I never thought that Macmillan’s e-book embargo would have more of an impact on women than men, but this post has really enlightened me. Thank you so much for sharing this post with us– You should send it to Macmillan via email! 😂 Wonderful discussion.


    • Krysta says:

      Another consideration is that elderly readers sometimes use e-books because they can make the text larger, and the elderly population tends to have a higher percentage of women. So this policy has all sorts of unexpected impacts.

      Ah,yes, I’d love to think that Macmillan cares, but this policy seems to be all about their bottom line. I’m not even convinced their authors will earn more since authors are generally paid more than their books earn out. Authors only get royalties after the book earns out their initial payment. So increased sales won’t necessarily go to the authors; they go back to Macmillan, until the advances are earned out. And who is likely going to have the most sales from an embargo? Authors who already well-established and have large fan bases who actually know when their newest book is being released. Midlist and debut authors will struggle more to get sales from this embargo because many library patrons won’t even be aware they have new books out, if they don’t see those books in the catalog. Macmillan is the only entity who obviously benefits here, as well as authors who already sell well and need a pay increase the least.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. alilovesbooks says:

    It would seem that the ebook embargo will disproportionately affect women, it’s pretty much accepted that women read more than men. Also as women typically take on more of the carer role I suspect there will also be an impact in terms of getting books for children, elderly relatives etc. I suppose the one contra argument is that women are probably more likely to go to the library and just borrow a physical copy of the book. I don’t have any evidence for this but from reading Invisible Women it does seem women tend to be more likely to be active in the community, running errands etc.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I agree there are a lot of factors here. I think it’s probably true women use the library more in general, so maybe they also get more physical books as well as more ebooks, but there’s also the issue that women are more likely to be more and more likely to use public transportation, so is it easy to pop by the library and get a physical book because they’re going to day care and the grocery store and work and their elderly relative’s house anyway? Or is it harder because they’re really busy or they need to take the bus instead of a car? This would really be worth looking into, especially if more publishers decide to limit ebook access.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, there is a question of whether women are more likely to check out physical books or e-books, which I don’t know from the data we have. One consideration, however, may be that, as e-book prices rise and e-book check-outs rise, libraries may be tempted to spend more of their budget on e-book access, rather than physical items. Would this help or hurt women? Probably it would hurt everyone because libraries have to spend more money to get e-book licenses that expire and have other restrictions on them (like the two month embargo) instead of getting more physical books that would last for years, maybe decades.


  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    Also, because VIDA keeps data on how many women are published and how many women are reviewers, we know that women are disproportionately passed up for publication, being reviewed, and reviewing. Thus, it’s possible that patrons may actually go out and buy their own e-book, but the author is likely a man.


  4. Michael J. Miller says:

    This was brilliant – thank you! Having the statistics here (as well as the links to explore later) was so helpful. Your point is obviously valid and it’s just another example of how the (often unseen) patriarchal structure of much of our society can impact women in ways we’re not necessarily aware of/ready to spot. I can say I teach a unit on “Fullness of Life for Women” in my social justice courses and we talk about a lot of what you’ve raised here but I’ve never thought about it in regard to the library specifically or the access of information there. It shows how interconnected everything is and how something like lower wages or poverty levels ripple out in unseen ways.

    This was a sobering read but also very insightful and I will certainly be thinking about it later.


    • Krysta says:

      Many have rightly been pointing out that the Macmillan embargo would disproportionately affect people who have less money, people with no ready transportation (or who live in rural areas), and people who may need large print (often the elderly). But I realized women are more likely to be poor and women make up a larger percentage of the elderly. And Caroline Criado Perez mentions in her book Invisible Women that women tend to use public transportation more and then, when households own a single car, the man tends to use it. So I thought talking about women might be an interesting conversation to have in terms of how the embargo affects them.

      Incidentally, Perez seems to be discussing women and transportation globally, but, because Macmillan USA is doing this, I thought it might be more relevant to discuss U.S. statistics. I couldn’t readily find car ownership details by gender for the U.S., however, so I didn’t address that in detail in the post.

      You’ve probably seen Briana mention Perez’s books a couple times on the blog, but it really is a fascinating read in terms of how society affects women in unexpected ones. One interesting topic she covers is joint tax returns, which tend to save a couple money overall, but actually end up taxing women more on their income because women usually earn less and so their income is stacked on top of their husband’s, thereby ending up taxed as a higher tax bracket than if they filed individually. Perez discusses how this seems fine because of the overall savings, but then shows that when men are in charge of the money, they don’t always spend in on the women. I think it was in the UK they changed how a child tax credit worked. Initially men got it, but then it was reformed so women got the money instead. Spending on women’s and children’s clothing subsequently went up, suggesting the women were spending the money differently than the men had been.

      Tax credits are a little thing you don’t think about, but then they end up having implications that affect people unexpectedly.

      Anyway, the point is, I highly recommend Perez’s work, which is both thought-provoking and depressing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I will absolutely take this recommendation. I have seen Briana’s pieces on Perez’s books before and I am planning on reading the text myself before I teach my unit in class on the Sisters of Mercy’s Critical Concern of “Full Life for Women.” Looking at, naming, and working to dismantle these sorts of oppressive structures around women is one of the Srs. primary concerns and, teaching at a Mercy school, it’s something I always highlight in my social justice courses.

        The tax credit example perfectly illustrates how systemic injustice shapes our society. It’s right there but we don’t see it. More often, we don’t even think to look for it. We’re certainly not taught to see it or seek it out. I see this with my students all the time. Often when I raise issues like this or present statistics like this, their first response is, “That’s can’t be right. That doesn’t really happen.” Seeing and acknowledging the unjust reality really is the first step to fixing anything.


        • Krysta says:

          I think Perez’s book is really provocative because people really do seem predisposed to disbelieve. I’ve discussed examples from it with a handful of men, actually, and you are only the second one who did not immediately jump in to state that Perez must be wrong, it can’t be true, and if it is true, it doesn’t really matter because it’s easily fixable (except for the part where it’s not been fixed). I think it’s hard to hear because we kind of feel ashamed as a society, even if we didn’t consciously set out to be unfair.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            I think you’re right – shame is a part of it. I also think we’re worried, as a people/culture, about having to upend our comfortable lives. Like, if it isn’t affecting ME then acknowledging it and working to change things means MY life may be different…and the struggle itself will be hard…and who wants to do that if I’m okay right now? So, as a distancing mechanism, we deny the very clear reality of these problems so we don’t have to feel compelled to do anything to help fix them. Because if they exist, and I acknowledge they exist, and I don’t do anything to help change them, I’m a bad person. There is no neutral position in situations of injustice. BUT if it’s not a real problem/exaggerated/easily fixable then I can comfortably ignore it and still be fine with myself. I’m still a good person because the problem isn’t real so that’s why I ignore it.

            It’s also fascinating, in a terrifying and unsettling sort of way, how well these systems of patriarchal oppression are masked. When I discuss this sort of stuff in class so many students, often even some of my female students, will claim this isn’t “as big” a problem as other social justice issues or it was but “it’s gotten so much better now” even though the evidence is clearly all around them.

            Liked by 1 person

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