Macmillan, one of the “Big Five” publishers, is imposing new limits on libraries’ access to ebooks—and libraries and their users are fighting back.
Starting last week, the publisher is imposing a two-month embargo period on library ebooks. When Macmillan releases a new book, library systems will be able to purchase only one digital copy for the first eight weeks after it’s published. Macmillan is offering this initial copy for half-price ($30), but that has not taken away the sting for librarians who will need to answer to frustrated users. In large library systems in particular, readers are likely to experience even longer hold queues for new Macmillan e-book releases. For example, under the new Macmillan embargo, the 27 branches of the San Francisco Public Library system, serving a city of nearly 900,000 people, will have to share one single copy right when the demand for the new title is the greatest.
The harms to libraries and their patrons during these two months go far beyond wait times. E-books are a critical resource for library users with vision impairment, dyslexia, and other physical or learning needs. An embargo on new e-books disproportionately harms these readers who rely on digital formats, and violates the principles of equitable access at the core of library services.
After the two-month embargo period ends, libraries will be welcome to purchase additional copies of the e-book under normal terms, which aren’t great to begin with: typically, a $60 price tag for an e-book that can only be lent out to one user at a time for two years or 52 lends, whichever comes first. After that, the library has to license another e-book. On top of that, libraries tend to have different agreements with each of their publishers and vendors, all of which are subject to change.
This is a significant mark-up over what a consumer might expect to pay for a new e-book, and a falsely restrictive model compared to libraries’ rights for physical books. When a library purchases a physical book, the purchase is covered by first sale doctrine, which means the library can lend it out freely, repair it, give it away, or resell it. But libraries don’t have any of those protections when it comes to e-books.
So why is Macmillan imposing additional burdens? In a July memo, CEO John Sargent says the publisher’s move is motivated by “growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales” of new e-books and a need to “protect the value of your books during their first format publication,” but fails to present any evidence to back up his claims. (He also ignores existing, consistent evidence to the contrary.)
In response, libraries across the country have boycotted, or at least strongly denounced, Macmillan e-book purchases. In another extraordinary step, the American Library Association has invited library users to sign onto a petition against the new embargo. The campaign, called #eBooksForAll, had over 160,000 signatures before the embargo started last week. Since then, the signature count has climbed to nearly 200,000.
All of this does not mean that Macmillan has it wrong on e-books across the board; for example, Macmillan publishes Tor Books, the only DRM-free imprint in the Big Five.
But of all the Big Five publishers to change e-book terms in the past year, Macmillan’s e-book embargo for libraries is by far the most contentious. The other four—Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—are surely watching the backlash. We urge readers, and authors who like to be read, to sign the ALA’s petition and let Macmillan know that the embargo is a mistake.