County Libraries Respond to E-book Embargo

County libraries across the country are pushing back against Macmillan Publishers’ new policy when it comes to purchasing e-books.

The publishing giant announced that starting Nov. 1, libraries can only purchase one copy of a newly released e-book and cannot purchase additional copies until eight weeks after its publication. The new policy applies only to e-books.

Libraries are increasingly dependent on eBooks and eAudiobooks to meet growing demand and help reach people who have a hard time physically visiting the library. But the so-called embargo will make it difficult for libraries to fulfill their core mission: ensuring access to information and content for all.

The new policy will force libraries to buy multiple copies of e-books, just as they do with regular paper copies. And libraries pay a premium for e-books — up to four times the cost a regular person would pay to download a book online.

According to NACo:

Macmillan CEO John Sargent said in a letter addressed to Macmillan authors that 45 percent of e-book reads are being borrowed for free from libraries.

With the new policy, the cost of a single copy of a newly released e-book will drop from the average price of $60 to $30, an action made by Macmillan in response to libraries’ requests for lower prices.

“Our new terms are designed to protect the value of your books during their first format publication. But they also ensure that the mission of libraries is supported,” Sargent said in the letter. “They honor the libraries’ archival mandate and they reduce the cost and administrative burden associated with e-book lending. We are trying to address the concerns of all parties.”

The American Library Association (ALA) denounced Macmillan’s new policy and urged Macmillan to cancel the eight-week embargo.

In King County, Wash., the King County Library System (KCLS) decided to stop purchasing newly released e-books from Macmillan Publishers in response to the policy. “It was a very reluctant decision made over many, many months,” said King County Library Executive Director Lisa Rosenblum.

The county has a “holds to copy” ratio of 5-to-1, meaning for every five holds on a book or e-book, the library purchases one copy to ensure the wait time does not exceed three months. When it comes to e-books, only one e-book can be loaned out to one user at a time.

“What it would mean is we’d have a title from Macmillan, we’d get one copy for 1.4 million people and only one copy could go out for three weeks,” she said. “Our holds would stack to the point where we could have 1,000 or 2,000 holds for one book.”

The library system has 50 libraries, serves more than one million residents and has been the top digital-circulating library in the country. Last year, patrons downloaded nearly five million e-books and audiobooks.

“We offer digital equity,” Rosenblum said. “We don’t care if you’re rich or poor. We offer the same equitable access to bestsellers.”

She described how many people who read e-books are on fixed incomes or can’t physically visit a library to check out paper copies of books.

“Macmillan’s new model would in fact not allow them to have copies of books unless they would be willing to buy them and we don’t believe that,” Rosenblum said. “We don’t believe people should have to buy books if they’re willing to wait for them.”

The American Library Association has created a petition at for those who oppose Macmillan’s new policy. As of last week, more than 130,000 had signed the petition.

“We hope Macmillan will change their mind. We would love to go back to buying bestsellers but until they do, I really feel we have to take a stand,” Rosenblum said. “We have to push back and not be dictated by publishers when we feel like we’re paying more than a fair price for the products they produce.”

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