You May Have To Wait To Borrow A New E-Book From The Library

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on November 1, 2019 7:03 pm

Libraries across the U.S. are furious with one of the country's big five publishing houses. As of Friday, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. is drastically restricting the sales of its e-books to libraries.

For the first eight weeks after an e-book goes on the market, a library system can buy only one copy. So if you are used to getting your books from a library and you are an e-book fan who has been eagerly awaiting Hillary Mantel's next book, The Mirror and the Light, for example, you may have a long wait when it comes out in March 2020.

Under the old rules, a large library system like New York's or Chicago's might have ordered hundreds of e-book copies. Now each system — large or small — can buy only one when it goes on sale.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent says those first eight weeks are crucial to the sales of books, especially bestsellers. He compares it to the movie business, which gets its biggest box-office returns on a film's opening weekend. Similarly, the highest volume of books are sold in the weeks after they first go on sale.

When Sargent announced the new e-book sales guidelines last July, he said they were a response "to growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales" of e-books. According to Sargent, 45% of Macmillan's e-books were being borrowed from libraries, a number he says is growing rapidly.

Libraries began protesting Macmillan's new policy as soon it was announced. The American Library Association spearheaded a campaign, #eBooksForAll, and gathered more than 160,000 signatures on a petition urging Macmillan to reverse the new policy. Representatives of the ALA presented the petition to Sargent in a meeting on Wednesday.

Sari Feldman, a past president of the ALA, says Sargent was "gracious," but he did not agree to suspend the new policy, which she refers to as an "embargo." Until now, Feldman says, libraries have been arguing about the prices publishers charge them for e-books, which she says is five times the retail price. With Macmillan's new policy, the issue has become about access.

"We believe that access, the freedom to read is so fundamental to America's public libraries," Feldman said.

Feldman says Macmillan believes that limiting the sale of e-books to libraries will drive people to buy retail copies of the book instead. But she points out "libraries buy e-books. ... We contribute to the e-book economy." Moreover, she says, people who use libraries are unlikely to spend their money on a new e-book because they are often have limited incomes.

The next step, Feldman says, may be to seek a legislative remedy. In response to a congressional inquiry, the ALA has has already released a report on the obstacles it faces in the digital book market. Citing both Macmillan and Amazon, the report outlines abusive pricing as well as denial and delay of e-book sales to libraries. Feldman says the ALA wants "to continue to raise this concern and ensure the American public has ... access."

For his part, Macmillan's Sargent says he is open to continued discussions with the libraries. "There's a large problem here that needs to be addressed one way or another," Sargent says. Both sides need to find a solution that gets "the best answer for the whole publishing ecosystem ... authors, publishers, retailers, readers and libraries."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you are someone who depends on e-books from the library, it could take a lot longer to get that hot new book you want. That is because starting today, Macmillan Publishers, one of the five largest publishing houses in the country, is drastically restricting sales of its new e-books to public libraries.

Under Macmillan's old rules, a large library system - think New York, Chicago - they might have ordered hundreds of digital copies of an eagerly awaited book. Now, each system, large or small, can buy only one e-book for the first eight weeks after it goes on sale. NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Macmillan CEO John Sargent announced the new guidelines for e-book sales last July, he said library lending was cannibalizing the sale of e-books. According to Sargent, 45% of Macmillan's e-books are being borrowed for free from libraries, and he adds that number is growing rapidly. Sargent decided to limit e-book sales in those early weeks because that's when interest is highest.

JOHN SARGENT: The best comparison is the movie industry probably.

NEARY: Sargent points out that movies get their biggest box office returns on opening weekend. When audiences dwindle, the features get moved to other platforms. He says it's the same for books.

SARGENT: It is the first eight to 12 weeks for most bestsellers that the biggest volume comes. It's not across all books, but the vast majority of bestsellers, the biggest volume is in those first weeks. It's a crucial time for sales. And that's where a lot of the volume in bookstores - that's when they sell the majority of their books.

SARI FELDMAN: One copy does not satisfy readership if it's a bestseller, a popular book, an important book.

NEARY: Sari Feldman is a senior policy adviser and past president of the American Library Association or ALA. She says one copy lets readers know a book is available...

FELDMAN: But it would frustrate library users who would not have any real access to that book. In eight weeks, maybe two people would get to borrow it.

NEARY: The ALA spearheaded a campaign against the new restrictions. It gathered more than 160,000 signatures on a petition which was presented to Macmillan's Sargent during a meeting earlier this week. Feldman says they asked him to suspend what she calls the embargo on e-book sales to libraries. He did not agree to do so. Feldman says Macmillan thinks that limiting the sale of e-books to libraries will drive people to buy retail copies of the book instead, but she points out...

FELDMAN: Libraries buy e-books, and I think that's really important. They're not given to us. We buy them. So we contribute to the e-book economy.

NEARY: Moreover, Feldman says, libraries pay more for e-books - as much as five times the retail price. And people who use libraries are unlikely to buy, rather than borrow a new book.

FELDMAN: Our population are primarily people who are on fixed incomes or limited incomes, have a relationship with the library where books are recommended to them, need the kind of access that libraries provide.

NEARY: For his part, Macmillan CEO John Sargent says he's open to continued discussions on a problem that needs to be addressed one way or another.

SARGENT: We would intend to talk to the libraries on an ongoing basis to try to get the best answer for the whole publishing ecosystem - being the authors, publishers, retailers, readers and libraries.

NEARY: The next step for the ALA, says Sari Feldman, may be to seek a legislative remedy for recurring problems with publishers over pricing and access to digital books. She says the ALA will continue to raise its concerns in order to ensure that the public has the kind of access that is fundamental to America's public libraries.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.