Macmillan Publishers Further Restricts eBook Access for Libraries

Posted on August 12, 2019

by Library News

Digitally borrowing and reading the latest popular novel presents an easy way to discover your next favorite book.

New limits from one of the nation’s largest publishers, however, will widely restrict eBook access for Toledo Lucas County Public Library customers and others across the country.

Macmillan Publishers recently announced a lending model that dramatically cuts eBook borrowing. A library may purchase just one digital copy of a Macmillan title within two months after its release to make available for the public.

This embargo means fewer opportunities for readers interested in the electronic format, and longer wait lists with certain Macmillan eBooks. Each library system, regardless of size and city, faces the same imposing limit.

“Toledo Lucas County Public Library’s mission includes providing ‘universal access to a broad range of information, ideas and entertainment,’ and the Macmillan restrictions are in direct opposition to our ability to meet customer needs,” said Jason Kucsma, Toledo Lucas County Public Library Director. “At a time when eBook demand is surging, we ask that new titles be made more available, not less.”

Toledo Library acquires an extensive amount of Macmillan content. It offers 3,170 of the publishers’ eBooks in OverDrive, plus another 1,098 audiobooks.

Libraries provide meaningful information in the most convenient forms, ensuring equity and access for all. Digitally available books and music are no exception. Their popularity is exploding.

Customers last year borrowed 466,251 eBooks from the Toledo Library, a significant increase from 326,559 in 2014. Digital audiobook checkouts over this same period more than doubled, from 98,325 to 254,764.

Toledo Library’s OverDrive program totaled 23,378 users during the past 12 months alone.

Expenditures are rapidly growing as well. Toledo Library spent $345,505 in 2018 on eBooks, an increase of 25 percent in the last four years. For eAudiobooks, last year’s local cost of $246,163 was 124 percent higher than 2014.

The demand for instantaneous eBooks is widespread, and libraries fulfill that need. A federal study from the Institute of Museum and Library Services found public libraries nationally offer more than 391 million eBooks.

But digital licensing rights strike a contrast with traditional printed items, in which libraries take sole ownership. Electronically formatted books cannot be resold at branch sales or transferred to another library for borrowing. Library leaders, who want to buy more digital copies, instead meet unnecessary caps imposed by publishers.

This embargo means fewer opportunities for readers interested in the electronic format, and longer wait lists with certain Macmillan eBooks. Each library system, regardless of size and city, faces the same imposing limit.

There are two main misconceptions about digital borrowing. The first is that libraries accumulate unlimited copies – and then zero wait times – when purchasing a digital title.

Local users placed 227,757 holds on digital items in 2018, an increase from 130,833 in 2014. There are now more than 20,600 holds – 12,846 eBook and 7,758 eAudio – with an average wait time of 38 days.

Another common misunderstanding is difference in pricing. The eBook is typically more expensive on a per-copy basis than its paper counterpart, despite accompanying lending rules. Libraries also pay higher prices for eBooks than consumers.

For example, “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin Random House) costs Amazon shoppers $16.73 in hardcover version and $14.99 for Kindle edition. Libraries instead pay $55 for the eBook and $95 for the eAudiobook. The library’s eBook expires after two years.

Similarly, “Summer of ’69” from Elin Hilderbrand (Little, Brown and Company) lists at $15.40 for hardcover and $14.99 for Kindle. Libraries pay $65 each for the digital book and audio version.

Toledo Library bought 16 and 10 eBook copies, respectively, of the two titles. Each still maintains a hold list of at least 100 requests. Licenses for both expire after two years.

Macmillan continues imposing tighter digital rules. In July 2018, the publisher implemented a four-month embargo for its Tor imprint of science fiction and fantasy books.

Other publishers also added digital restrictions. According to the American Library Association, Hachette Book Group and Penguin Random House replaced “perpetual access” for libraries with a two-year access model. Macmillan is alone with its embargo policy among “Big 5” publishers.

ALA President Wanda Brown urged Macmillan to cancel its plan. A library that serves thousands of people and carries just one eBook edition of a new title is perceived as unresponsive to the public.

“Macmillan Publishers’ new model for library eBook lending will make it difficult for libraries to fulfill our central mission: ensuring access to information for all,” Brown said. “Limiting access to new titles for libraries means limiting access for patrons most dependent on libraries.”

Librarians elsewhere denounced the change. In an opinion piece published in August by CNN, Vermont librarian Jessamyn West called such barriers to information a short-sighted move.

“In Macmillan’s ideal world, that library patron would get frustrated with the library and go purchase the eBook instead. And maybe some people will do that,” West wrote. “In the library’s ideal world, we’d be able to buy more copies of the book, and even agree to short-term contracts, if it meant that more people had access to the books they wanted to read, when they wanted to read them. This was not an option on the table.”

Toledo Library leaders recognize the impact of Macmillan’s decision and are speaking up for greater access. We will provide more information for library customers as updates develop.

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