Seattle Public Library is taking a different approach to Macmillans dumb embargo.
Seattle Public Library is taking a different approach to Macmillan's dumb embargo, but the important thing to remember here is that Macmillan is being dumb. KELLY O

Come November 1, the King County Library System (KCLS) will stop buying newly released e-books from Macmillan—one of the country's Big Five publishers—in protest of the company's new e-book lending policy.

Macmillan's new policy restricts the number of digital copies libraries can buy, offering them only one "perpetual-access copy" per "library system" for the first two months. (For context: KCLS has 50 libraries in its system. So that's one digital copy shared between 50 libraries.) After the two-month embargo, libraries can buy more copies, but at a higher price than they normally pay.

In a press release, KCLS spokesperson Sarah Thomas said Macmillan's embargo could make library users wait "years" instead of only a few months to read popular new titles from the publisher. Thomas said they're still planning to buy the physical copies of Macmillan's new releases, though. So if you're a regular library patron in Bellevue or White Center and you're looking forward to checking out a new e-book from Macmillan, you'll have to pick up a physical copy at your local branch.

KCLS hopes the boycott will put pressure on Macmillan to change before they enact the embargo at the end of next week, emphasizing the negative impact the publisher's policy will have on people with accessibility issues. "We do not want other publishers to follow the example of Macmillan and embargo books. To do so profoundly changes the public library," Thomas said in the release.

Over the phone, Thomas said social-media response to the move has been "pretty positive." Patrons are offering support and encouraging the library to "continue the fight."

Though last summer the Seattle Public Library (SPL) joined KCLS in "denouncing" Macmillan's move, the city's library system is taking a different approach.

In a phone interview, Andrew Harbison, assistant director of collections and access at SPL, said the library "respects King County's position," but will continue to buy Macmillan e-books out of concern for patrons with accessibility issues, who are more dependent on electronic formats.

The current plan is to buy the one perpetual-access copy at the end of Macmillan's embargo period, and then buy other copies on an as-needed basis. That way, Harbison says, the library won't inflate demand in their catalog system by showing thousands of holds for months on newly released e-books from Macmillan.

"It's far less ideal to offer these titles not at the point of publication, but to have them in the collection for the longer term will help us with our larger goal of greater accessibility," Harbison said.

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The details "aren't fully hammered out yet," but SPL also wants to include a note in the catalog entries for digital Macmillan titles that explains the weird situation and encourages users to contact that publisher and demand they end the embargo.

Harbison says SPL "won't rule out a boycott" on the publisher in the future. They plan to keep an eye on patron engagement with the new Macmillan titles and to watch "how other libraries respond to the changes."

Though KCLS and SPL are taking different approaches here, the important thing to remember is that Macmillan is being dumb. Over the summer, Macmillan CEO John Sargent explained the reason for the rule change by arguing that library lending was "cannibalizing" e-book sales, which hurts authors. However, he didn't produce the evidence he cited in support of his claim, and libraries have called bullshit in several ways.

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