The Seattle Public Library—and every public library, for that matter—is pissed at one of the Big Five publishers for changing up their lending policy for e-books.
Starting November 1 of this year, Macmillan will sell libraries only one copy of a newly released e-book for half price (about $30), but then make libraries wait two months before offering more copies for sale at full price ($60).
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The rationale behind this move, according to a draft of a memo to authors written by Macmillan CEO John Sargent, is "to balance the great importance of libraries with the value of [an author's] work."
Sargent argues that library lending is "cannibalizing sales" of e-books. He thinks the embargo will help the e-books sell better online, and claims to have data proving that the publisher makes far less on "library reads" than they they do on "retail reads."
Running it through the Stranger's standard anger translating software, the response from libraries is:
1. Fuck you, we're basically a publicly funded marketing department for every publisher in the country, and we constantly hold author events where authors sell lots of books, the profits from which go to publishers and not libraries.
2. We’re already paying way more for copies of e-books than for copies of physical books.
3. This policy also fucks over low income people. Instead of accessing new releases at the library, they'll have to pay Amazon or go without, while high income readers will get to decide whether or not they want to wait.
4. Because the general public doesn't understand the lending agreements between publishers and libraries, library users are going to give libraries—not publishers—tons of shit for this, which will hurt the perception of libraries and probably do more damage to authors in the long run.
Over the phone, Andrew Harbison, assistant director of collections and access at SPL, offered more details and less heat.
For context, it's true that libraries have been lending e-books at increasing rates. In 2018, SPL counted over 100,000 unique library users checking out e-books and e-audiobooks, which is quite large relative to the library's approximately 390,000 active cardholders. (The library defines an "active cardholder" as someone who has used their library card in the last three years for any reason.) That's one in four active borrowers using an ebook and/or e-audiobook in 2018.
This jump helped make SPL one of the top five e-book and e-audiobook circulators in the country, according to Harbison, with nearly 3 million checkouts last year. Harbison called this growth "tremendous" and "staggering."
Rather than "cannibalizing" sales, Harbison argues that libraries boost sales by "retaining, maintaining, and advocating for a robust reading culture," though he admits "more work needs to be done" on quantifying the amount of money libraries make for publishers by serving, essentially, as their publicists.
However, as noted by SPL's chief librarian, Marcellus Turner, the Panorama Project has done some work toward this end. Their study of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system found that over 17,000 people attended 83 events last year. Guests bought over 11,000 books at those events, averaging 122 sales per reading. That ain't nothin, and that's just Cleveland.
Panorama also points to studies showing that "50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library," and that "a majority of print readers (54%) and readers of e-books (61%) prefer to purchase their own copies of these books."
Harbison also has questions about the way that Sargent is reading his data. Though Sargent is right that interest in e-books is growing, his argument might assume that libraries are lending out every e-book to its fullest capacity, which Harbison says is "not the case." So that library-read to retail-read differential might not be as wide as he thinks it is.
SPL would love to see Macmillan's data to be sure, but Harbison says the publisher "hasn't been willing to provide it." I've asked Macmillan for the data, as well as for comment on how they're reading that data, and I'll update this post if I hear back.
Regardless, Harbison says that SPL and other libraries are spending "millions of dollars a year" on e-books and e-audiobooks, which are already sold to libraries at disproportionally higher price points compared to retail markets. An e-book version of a new release typically costs libraries double what they pay for physical copies of the same title, and that's not counting substantial discounts that libraries get for buying large volumes of physical copies, which are of course not offered in the e-book market.
Macmillan's policy change, Harbison argues, will ultimately reduce the quality of the collection the library can build. As e-books get more expensive, they'll be forced to buy fewer titles, which will erode the depth and breadth of the materials the library can offer.
The policy also creates an accessibility issue. "Some of the users can't make it into our libraries," Harbison said. "They prefer e-books and e-audiobooks because they're not mobile, or they have low vision, and we want to be able to continue to provide content in the format those users need."
Finally, libraries are worried Macmillan's decision will encourage other big publishers to follow a similar path. "It's definitely a concern," Harbison said.
"And it's not like libraries don't want to spend any money," he added. "We want to contribute meaningfully to how the licensing models are developed, and we'll continue to buy content and support the publishing industry, but hopefully there is some willingness to develop models that work for us and the communities we serve."
If you want to change Macmillan's mind about this new policy, write a critical Tweet and close it with #ebooksforall. Then write a stern letter to Macmillan directly at email@example.com. If that's not working for you, try firstname.lastname@example.org. The only way they're going to budge on this is if they hear from a bunch of smart readers like you.