Battle for eBooks happening in public libraries

This article was written by Omaha Public Library Executive Director Laura Marlane for the December 1, 2019 edition of the Omaha World-Herald.

There’s a battle going on in public libraries across the country to preserve your right to access eBooks. On November 1, Macmillan Publishing began restricting access to newly published eBook titles in their first eight weeks of publication. During this embargo period, public libraries may purchase one copy of a new eBook, regardless of the number of people served by that library system -- one copy. The reason for this, Macmillan Publishing CEO John Sargent said, is that library lending was cannibalizing sales and that embargoing new titles for eight weeks will force people to purchase them instead of borrowing them. 

In 2010, Sargent called eBooks in public libraries “a thorny problem” for publishers, stating, “It’s like Netflix, but you don’t pay for it. How is that a good model for us?” The fact is, however, that libraries purchase books all the time, and not just one copy. When a new, popular title is released, a public library will buy multiple copies in different formats that may include hardcover, large print, downloadable audio, eBook, Playaways, and CDs — thereby becoming a large financial investment in one newly published title. Libraries also pay four to five times more for an eBook than a retail customer does, and only have access to that eBook for a limited period of time before having to purchase it again.  

Public libraries have proven to be a strong and powerful economic engine for the publishing industry. In 2011, Library Journal executive editor Rebecca Miller reported findings from a survey pinpointing usage patterns of library patrons, with special attention to eBook usage. “Over 50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library. This debunks the myth that when a library buys a book the publisher loses future sales. Instead, it confirms that the public library does not only incubate and support literacy, but it is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning eBook market.” 

The response to Macmillan Publishing’s embargo on eBook sales has been huge. During the first week of November, nearly 80 mayors across the U.S. and Canada signed a statement in conjunction with the Urban Libraries Council and the Canadian Libraries Council stating, “Multinational publishers are price-gouging taxpayers and intensifying the gaps between the haves and have-nots in communities of all sizes with their restrictive licenses and excessively high prices. Most concerning is the new eBook embargo imposed by Macmillan Publishers, which results in an intentional erosion of digital equity by severely restricting eBook access for library patrons.”   

To date, 37 libraries have joined in a boycott of Macmillan Publishing, including Omaha Public Library (OPL). OPL will not purchase any embargoed eBooks during the eight week window, but will purchase other formats of the same titles. If a demand remains for the eBook after the eight-week period, OPL may purchase the eBook. Though it’s unclear how this situation will develop, OPL will continue to fight for your right to equitable access to digital content. To learn more about the issue or sign the petition telling Macmillan that you do not support their decision to restrict access to digital content, visit eBooksforall.org, a page created by the American Library Association. 

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