Macmillan's Unfair Ebook Embargo // My Thoughts on the Battle Between Libraries and Publishers


I know I'm about two months late with this topic, but I still have yet to share my thoughts about Macmillan's ebook embargo.

In case you are just now discovering, back on November 1, 2019, Macmillan, one of the Big 5 publishers in the United States, has decided to limit readers' public access to new ebooks through their libraries. Instead of allowing libraries to purchase many copies of newer releases during the first 2 months of release, libraries now have to purchase only one copy.

Beginning November 1, 2019, Macmillan Publishers allows libraries—no matter the size of their city or town—to purchase only one copy of each new eBook title for the first eight weeks after a book’s release.

This all started as a test program that Macmillan worked with Tor Books for their new ebooks could not be available for libraries until after four months after their release. Since then, they decided to expand this test for all new ebooks in the upcoming year (2019 and onward). From publishersweekly.com:

In a statement to libraries through their vendors, Macmillan officials said the new embargo was part of "a test program" (although an “open ended” test, the release states) to assess the impact of library e-book lending on retail sales. But the statement goes on to say that the publisher's “current analysis on eLending indicates that it is having a direct and adverse impact on retail eBook sales," and that Tor will work with library vendors to “develop ongoing terms that will best support Tor’s authors, their agents, and Tor’s channel partners.”

What brought this embargo on? Macmillan CEO John Sargent believes that libraries hinder book sales. Publishers Weekly explains: [Sargent believed] “the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed e-books” was decreasing “the perceived economic value of a book” and “causing book-buying customers to change habits.” In an earlier memo to authors and agents, Sargent claimed that 45% of the company’s “digital reads” were through libraries—a new and still unexplained statistic.

In January, Sargent participated in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) segment with other executives during the 2020 Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the embargo issue with local librarians. To very little avail, Sargent basically explained to a room full of frustrated and confused librarians and directors in very little updated detail as to why this embargo was necessary. A needed moment was when Hillsboro Public Library director Stephanie Chase told Sargent:

“I think some of what is so hard is that there are many people in this room who were part of these conversations with you 15 years ago, 10 years ago. And what I hear is that you still view us as a problem,” Chase said. “Until you see us as part of your ecosystem, and not a problem in your ecosystem, I think we’re not going to get anywhere. And that’s why it remains so difficult to have these conversations with Macmillan, and why you see so many librarians so willing to say, you know what, hands up. I would just say, on behalf of the people in this room, it’s been really hard to listen to you kind of explain to us our work in a way that is not fundamentally correct.”

And to that, I say absolutely! It sounds to me like Macmillan has a bit of a rivalry with Amazon and are projecting their tension onto libraries, who are just there to do their job as public service members for their communities. Especially urban, lower-income communities, where not a lot of people have access to bookstores or thrift stores all the time. So they have to rely on libraries to get the latest copy of their favorite book, or a new book they've been waiting to read. But now they can't do that because they have to wait in a long line for one copy. I'll admit that I don't use my local library as much, outside of Overdrive's eLibrary NJ services, but since this controversy, I've been on the rise to borrowing more often, just to support libraries in general. I hope Macmillan makes some changes to this embargo for everyone so that everyone can enjoy their library without difficulty. 

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