Thoughts on Macmillan's AMA Regarding Their E-Book Embargo

Thoughts on the Macmillan AMA

On January 25, 2020, Macmillan CEO John Sargent hosted an AMA at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia to address concerns about the e-book embargo imposed by the publisher last November.  The embargo stipulates that libraries can only purchase one license for a new e-book title upon its release.  They must wait eight weeks to purchase additional copies. Sargent’s hope is that frustrated library patrons who cannot check out a book in a reasonable amount of time will purchase it instead, driving up Macmillan’s revenue.  Libraries have protested strongly to the embargo, some of them even imposing boycotts upon Macmilan e-book titles (though they continue to purchase print versions of the titles, which are generally cheaper than e-book licenses and can be kept until weeded–unlike e-books which expire after a certain number of check outs or after a certain number of months, and must then be repurchased).

Publishers Weekly‘s coverage of the AMA indicates that Macmillan has no intentions to lift the embargo anytime soon.  Sargent stated that more time must pass before the publisher knows whether the embargo has been financially successful.  He also explained that librarians will never get the data they have been clamoring for, since that is private business information, some of it held under nondisclosure agreements.  None of this is surprising.

What is surprising is Sargent’s continued ignorance of how libraries work and why they are important to a democratic society.  This might have been excusable when Macmillan announced the embargo–a CEO probably has no need to use a public library and so is unlikely to understand what libraries do or how they support communities.  Months of meetings with frustrated librarians, however, surely should have inspired Sargent to research the work of libraries more closely. Instead, he explained to librarians during the meeting how libraries work and how that hurts Macmillan’s bottom line–even though his understanding of libraries is at best exaggerated and at worst totally incorrect.

The Publishers Weekly coverage states that Sargent blamed increasing accessibility to library cards–and thus to digital e-book lending–as a troubling trend that allows library patrons to choose to borrow instead of buy.  He suggested that patrons see the books as free and so they see no reason to buy e-books.  He even gave an example of how library patrons might go to extreme lengths to avoid paying for an e-book: 

‘”If you are in the state of California, you can easily own a library card for every library in the state of California, and when a book comes out that you want, you can put your name on every wait list in every county, and there are apps being developed to make that easier to do, and so that drives up the number of lends for every book in every library and that causes the amount of money per reader reading a book to go down. And that is the change that we worry about.”

Sargent’s example is uncompelling because it imagines a scenario that seems far from common; the average library user likely does not hold dozens of current cards. In fact, many libraries require patrons to be taxpayers in their service area, or they charge an annual fee to non-taxpayers, which the average individual presumably does not pay. Additionally, it seems unlikely that the average patron would place multiple holds for the same book in multiple systems. If they did, however, Sargent would have to demonstrate that these holds are all lost sales to Macmillan. But it seems that someone so dedicated to getting a library e-book was never going to purchase the book, anyway.

Furthermore, patrons placing holds are possibly increasing Macmillan’s bottom line by prompting libraries to buy more e-book copies to meet demand and lower hold wait times. If a patron places, say, ten holds at tend libraries, and only reads one of the copies that comes in, doesn’t Macmillan win? The other libraries still purchased a copy to fill the hold and, when that copy is checked out, it counts towards the 52 checkouts a metered copy has, before the library must repurchase the license. (Metered copies are available for two years, or 52 lends, whichever comes first.) Sargent’s claims do not seem to make sense, if you know how libraries work.

The coverage of the meeting suggests to me that Macmillan is not truly open to finding a way forward with libraries. Sargent mentioned that he is interested in either limiting availability or driving up price, but that libraries are opposed to both. (Physical books are generally much cheaper than e-book licenses for libraries.) It seems that the two sides are currently at an impasse.

Interestingly, however, the AMA might bear fruit in that librarians finally recognized that they may have to address how much power Amazon has over the e-book industry going forward, as Sargent confirmed his data has been coming from the online retailer. I have always found it odd that many libraries seem to purchase books or program materials from Amazon, and to encourage patrons to shop there by asking patrons to use Amazon Smile and name their library as the recipient of their donations. Amazon has a long history of harming authors and publishers, and they have exclusive content they refuse to allow libraries to buy, creating more social inequity. Public libraries supporting Amazon never made sense. Perhaps now libraries will begin to realize that cheap prices might not be a fair exchange for giving Amazon a near monopoly on bookselling.

The Macmillan e-book embargo will likely continue for some time. However, I have hope that library and consumer boycotts will encourage Macmillan to reconsider their position and to recognize the power libraries have to market books, to create readers, and, yes, to create consumers.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Macmillan's AMA Regarding Their E-Book Embargo

  1. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I agree there’s a lot to unpack here. I think it’s fair to say the embargo has only been going on for about three months now, so maybe they don’t have good numbers on whether it’s “working,” but I also don’t think the pilot lasted that long. I am curious what they think the general trend looks like right now, but I also understand businesses don’t typically release this type of information to the public.

    I agree the CEO seems to have no real conception of how libraries work or how people use them. He also picked probably the one state in the entire country that tends to have “unusual” policies. It is NOT typical in most states that you can join any library at will, and pointing at California is (intentionally?) misleading. And of course that doesn’t mean that a large number of people in California DO belong to 25 libraries and put the same ebook on hold at all of them. (I also imagine you still have to show up in person to get the card at most of them, so it’s not like someone in San Francisco is just going to catch a flight to Los Angeles to get a library card.)

    And the thing with Amazon is definitely suspect. Beyond the fact that Amazon has been bad news for publishers and authors and book pricing, Amazon also has a vested interest in making libraries look bad so people turn to Amazon instead of “solutions.” I can see why it’s concerning that they’re the source of this mysterious data that says libraries are the ones costing publishers sales.

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    • Krysta says:

      They said the numbers are down, but they expected that initially because of the embargo. However, I think they didn’t expect the boycotts, so maybe they are waiting to see how long the libraries will hold out. Some libraries, too, are only boycotting for the two months after release, so Macmillan would get that money, just later.

      A librarian did call out Sargent for using an unusual, worst case scenario as a reason to impose an embargo. His strategy might make sense if he were not speaking to a room full of library workers who happen to know how libraries work. It’s actually kind of insulting he stood up there and presumed to explain their profession to them and not quite honestly.

      I do hope librarians will begin to look at the overall picture here. Jackson’s embargo is a problem, but they seem to be encouraged by Amazon, and that is not something libraries should ignore.

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