Moneybox

Why Angry Librarians Are Going to War With Publishers Over E-Books

Inside an appropriately quiet revolt.

The New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room.
David Iliff/Wikimedia Commons

If I wanted to borrow A Better Man by Louise Penny—the country’s current No. 1 fiction bestseller—from my local library in my preferred format, e-book, I’d be looking at about a 10-week waitlist. And soon, if the book’s publisher, a division of Macmillan, has its way, that already-lengthy wait time could get significantly longer.

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In July, Macmillan announced that come November, the company will only allow libraries to purchase a single copy of its new titles for the first eight weeks of their release—and that’s one copy whether it’s the New York Public Library or a small-town operation that’s barely moved on from its card catalog. This has sparked an appropriately quiet revolt. Librarians and their allies quickly denounced the decision when it came down, and now the American Library Association is escalating the protest by enlisting the public to stand with libraries by signing an online petition with a populist call against such restrictive practices. (The association announced the petition Wednesday at Digital Book World, an industry conference in Nashville, Tennessee.) What’s unclear is whether the association can get the public to understand a byzantine-seeming dispute over electronic files and the right to download them.

In a July memo addressed to Macmillan authors, illustrators, and agents, the company’s CEO John Sargent cited the “growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales” as a reason for embargoing libraries from purchasing more than one copy of new books during their first eight weeks on sale. “It seems that given a choice between a purchase of an ebook for $12.99 or a frictionless lend for free, the American ebook reader is starting to lean heavily toward free,” he claimed.

Many individual library systems and companies that work with libraries swiftly responded with objections. “Public libraries are engaged in one of the most valuable series of community services for all ages, for all audiences,” said Steve Potash, the CEO and founder of OverDrive, a company that supplies libraries with e-books. “The public library is just something that is underappreciated. It certainly is so by Macmillan.”

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“If you think about equitable access to information for everybody, there shouldn’t be discrimination or anything like that,” said Alan Inouye, the senior director for public policy and government relations at the ALA. “So consumers can get this book on Day 1 without limitation, but libraries have to wait for eight weeks? That’s just very wrong.”

The ALA decided that statements weren’t enough. “We need to have more than just libraries and librarians saying this message,” Inouye said. “It would be much more effective if nonlibrarians would say it too.” Hence the petition, which Inouye said marked a first-of-its-kind move for the organization.

The controversy over Macmillan’s new policy gets at one of the central issues facing book publishing today. “There’s a tension in e-book pricing generally between consumer expectations that a digital file will be less expensive than a physical copy and the reality that very little of the cost of making a book is tied up in the physical format,” said Devin McGinley, a senior industry analyst covering book publishing for Ibisworld Inc., a market research firm. “Publishers are rightly concerned that if the price of books erodes too much, they will no longer be able to cover their creative costs and subsidize more speculative bets on emerging authors.”

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Still, the library side pushed back at Macmillan’s singling out of libraries and assertion that e-book lending was driving consumer reluctance to pay up. Macmillan claimed to have tried out the eight-week embargo with one of its imprints, Tor, but declined to share the results publicly. “They really did not have any reasonable data to support a narrative that if an author’s new book is withheld from public library lending when it first comes out, that might impact the author’s or the book’s sales during those first few months,” Potash said. “That isn’t borne out. The data that OverDrive has is that for every title that actually gets borrowed or downloaded, the library is engaging with dozens and dozens of readers who are discovering the book, sampling the book, or just looking for a recommendation on what to read next.” Potash said that studies consistently show library patrons to be more frequent book buyers overall—which is another reason Macmillan’s letter stung. “They are taking their readers, their customers, their fans, and intentionally trying to frustrate them,” he said.

As the ALA’s initial statement read, “When a library serving many thousands has only a single copy of a new title in ebook format, it’s the library—not the publisher—that feels the heat. It’s the local library that’s perceived as being unresponsive to community needs.” McGinley, the industry analyst, added, “Libraries are worried that if other publishers follow suit, delays and wait times for patrons will make it more difficult to expand and sustain their e-book programs.”

If disputes between publishers and libraries and bookstores and authors about e-books sound familiar to you, you’re not alone. “E-book prices have been in flux in recent years because publishers are still finding their digital footing and deciphering how e-books will work within their business model,” McGinley said. “Publishers are in a unique position among print media industries, where they have at least some control over the extent of the digital competition they face. In the past, higher e-book prices have sometimes been a way to apply the brake.” Librarians, naturally, are tired of all the braking.

Library people admit their cause may seem obscure. The licensing model for libraries and e-books itself is complex and difficult to explain to outsiders. “It’s too much detail and also takes you out of your mind,” said the ALA’s Inouye. “It’s like, ‘First of all, it sounds crazy, and then it sounds egregious. Sixty dollars to have one copy for two years? You must be wrong. That can’t be right. The consumer pays like $14 for an e-book.’ ” Currently, every publisher has its own agreement with libraries, each of which is different and subject to change: Publishers set the price, and libraries sometimes pay two to three times the retail price of e-books to acquire them. This price includes permission for libraries to lend the books out over the coming years—usually to one person at a time, despite the digital nature of the files—and acknowledges that the e-book will never get lost or wear out like a print book. Some publishers have policies that include metered access, meaning that after the book is either borrowed a certain number of times or a certain length of time passes, libraries must repurchase the title. Potash’s company, OverDrive, serves as a middle man between publishers and libraries and handles all the red tape. Amazon, the owner of the most popular e-book format, Kindle, is also in the mix, and though it doesn’t profit on individual e-books, it does benefit from consumer data it collects in the process, Potash said.

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Rather than addressing the pricing issue in general, the ALA decided to limit the scope of the petition to protesting Macmillan’s eight-week embargo plan. That way, “you don’t have to get into all the details about all the other business models and how they vary among publishers,” Inouye said.

With the petition, an extraordinary step in this world, you could argue that Macmillan’s plan is already backfiring, having angered one of its major constituencies. And if the change bears out, there’s the possibility of bigger trouble for the publisher ahead: “Macmillan has a minor e-book market share compared with the other Big Five publishers, so if it is the only publisher to pursue this strategy, it may hurt the publisher’s sales to libraries while causing relatively little inconvenience to library patrons,” McGinley said. Patrons might find, when loading up their e-readers and apps, that there are more than enough non-Macmillan books out there to go around.