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Embargoed: Libraries Struggle with Ebook Purchasing

by on October 8, 2019

Ebook lending has a long history of being difficult for libraries, thanks to high prices and metered access. Recently, Macmillan announced a new policy that will make it even harder for libraries to purchase enough e-content to suit their patrons’ needs[1].

On July 25, Macmillan CEO John Sargent announced that beginning November 1, the publisher will limit library systems to the purchase of one perpetual access license during a title’s first eight weeks in publication. This single license will be available at half price. After the initial eight weeks, additional licenses may be purchased at full price but are still subject to the publisher’s existing limitations on duration of the license (generally two years) and/or number of borrows.

On September 26, the interest group Readers First broke the news that Overdrive Advantage libraries belonging to consortia may purchase their own OC/OU (one copy, one user) copy during the eight-week window in addition to the single perpetual access license purchased by their consortia.[2] Although this change will help libraries that are part of a system, it is by no means a complete fix.

The backlash against Macmillan’s new policy has been quick and strong, not just from librarians. Media outlets such as CNN[3] and Slate[4] have brought attention to the fight. The American Library Association (ALA) has launched a campaign titled “#eBooksForAll”, which includes a public-facing petition addressed to Sargent. Currently, the petition contains more than 60,000 signatures from librarians and members of the public.

Macmillan’s new policy adds another layer to the already complex world of e-content acquisition for libraries. For years, libraries have struggled with dramatically higher pricing on ebooks and digital audiobooks than their physical counterparts. In addition to pricing woes, most e-content licenses for libraries are restricted to a certain number of checkouts or a defined time period. Once one of these thresholds is met, the license disappears, forcing the library to either forfeit access to the title or buy a new license.

Just how far removed is library pricing from the cost to a regular consumer? Take, for example, the popular bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The consumer-facing ebook currently sells for $14.99 on Amazon. The list price for the hardcover edition is $26.00, which libraries are typically able to purchase through vendors at an additional discount. If I want to purchase the ebook through Overdrive Advantage so my library’s patrons can access it through the popular Libby app, it costs a whopping $55.00 and is only valid for 24 months.

At this moment, there are 637 holds on 60 digital copies of Where the Crawdads Sing in my consortia of 77 libraries. For a popular bestseller, this level of demand is not uncommon. Fortunately, in this case, the title in question is published by Penguin Group and would not fall into Macmillan’s embargo if it were published this winter.

To further complicate the scenario, many library patrons do not understand the intricate workings of loanable e-content. It can be a learning curve to comprehend the notion that most library ebooks are not licensed for simultaneous usage, and holds must be placed on copies that are checked out. Furthermore, it can be frustrating for patrons to see long wait times when they reserve a title; for popular bestsellers in my organization, it is not uncommon to see wait times of six months or more without any kind of embargo.

If a patron currently must wait more than half a year for their turn to read an e-book, what will happen to that waiting period when libraries are limited in how many copies they can purchase? How long can we realistically expect our users to wait before being forced to either purchase their own copy or, worse, forego reading the book entirely? As more patrons turn to digital content to satisfy their reading interests, it should be easier for libraries to purchase e-content – not harder.

Sargent has noted concern that libraries purchasing e-content take away sales from authors. Aside from the fact that an embargo cuts back on the revenue authors will see from library sales, this stance neglects to take into account that many patrons use libraries as discovery tools in finding new authors. When faced with finite resources, readers may be wary of spending their own money on an author or series they aren’t sure if they’ll like. Trying the book in question by borrowing from the library is an easy way to test the waters without significant personal cost. In turn, if the reader likes what they read, it can lead them to invest in new authors that they would not have had the means to try out otherwise.

Aside from the discovery aspect, it is quite a privileged stance to assume that all readers have the means to support buying every book they want to consume. This is where libraries are most critical, in providing access to information and resources. Ultimately, embargoes such as Macmillan’s prevent us from fulfilling our missions.

[1] Albanese, Andrew. “After Tor Experiment, Macmillan Expands Embargo on Library E-Books.” Publishers Weekly, July 25, 2019. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/80758-after-tor-experiment-macmillan-expands-embargo-on-library-e-books.html.

[2] Blackwell, Michael. “A Small Change for Consortia in in Macmillan Licensing.” Readers First, September 26, 2019. http://www.readersfirst.org/news/2019/9/26/a-small-change-for-consortia-in-macmillan-licensing.

[3] West, Jessamyn. “Libraries are Fighting to Preserve Your Right to Borrow E-Books.” CNN, August 2, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/02/opinions/libraries-fight-publishers-over-e-books-west/index.html.

[4] Schwedel, Heather. “Why Angry Librarians are Going to War with Publishers Over E-Books.” Slate, September 11, 2019. https://slate.com/business/2019/09/e-book-library-publisher-buying-controversy-petition.html.


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