Ebook Embargo

Tomorrow (Nov 1, 2019), Macmillan’s new rules for library digital copies goes into effect.  It is being called an embargo.  Here’s how it will work.  For each new release, a library can buy one digital copy for around 30 dollars with perpetual access (Sargent, “Memo”).  After eight weeks, the library will be able to buy as many digitals as it desires; however, these come at a price of up to 60 dollars with a two year or 52 lend limit (Sargent, “Memo”).  Needless to say, libraries are upset.  Today (10/31/19), the ALA delivered over 165,000 signatures opposing this embargo. 


So, what is this all about, how does this all work?




                According to the ALA’s testimony before the US House, eBooks make up about 19% of the book market in the US (2).  Additionally, according to Overdrive, the company that enables the borrowing of eBooks from libraries, there were 274 billion eBook and eBook audio borrows last year (Million Checkout Club”).  This number is for the US and Canada combined.  The Toronto system has the most digital loans (Million Checkout”) and the King County Library System in Washington state is the largest digital library in the US (Macdonald) with 4.8 million digital checkouts (Albanese, “Major”).


                In most cases, when a library buys a digital book, the branch is spending anywhere from 30 to 220+ dollars on one digital book.  This means that cases the library has a two-year access (and/or a limited number of reads usually 26-52).  After the end of this period, the library can re-purchase the digital copy for another set length of time or loans.   This format is, at least until Nov 2019, the format used by the Big 5 Publishers.  Keep in mind that one digital eBook can only be loaned to one person at a time.

 It should also be noted that Amazon Publishing does not make its books available to public libraries (ALA Report 2).  Additionally, in terms of its lending, Amazon seems to do one of two things in regards to big publishers – either there is a fixed fee each time someone borrows the book or the book is sold to Amazon at a wholesale price each time someone borrows it (Paul).


On the surface, this does make some sense, perhaps not in terms of pricing for the library, but it does allow the publisher to make a profit, the library to have the book, and the patrons to read it.  The system seems to be like that used to price college textbooks, and while both systems have problems in regards to pricing (such as is it too high), there is a sense of logic to it.


Apparently, eBook sales have been at pretty much constant rate for the last couple years.




                Last year, Macmillan tried out an embargo with its Tor imprint.  While the company has not released the data from the experiment, in a memo laying out the changes to take place next month, the company has claimed that it worked.  In a memo outlining the changes, John Sargent, the CEO, notes that library lending is “cannibalizing sales” and that 45% of the company’s eBook reads are via libraries with the revenue of such reads being under two dollars (Sargent, “Memo”).  He also notes that the public excepts eBooks to be cheaper.  (He’s right about this.  With a physical book, I can: read it myself, loan it to people, resell it, recycle it, past it on, regift it, or trade it’s in.  With an eBook, I might be able to loan it.  That’s it.)  Because of this desire to save money, more people are reading eBooks via libraries.  Hence, for the company to exist and make profit, the terms must be changed.


                In a letter dated the 30th of October, Sargent goes further noting that with physical books library patrons had friction – they had to travel to library to borrow and return the book, and there were late fees.  He contends that there is no such friction with eBooks. 


Take Away


          Well, at least several libraries, including the King County System, will not be buying digital books from Macmillan to protest the embargo.  According to Kent Olivier director of the Nashville Public Library system, patrons could be waiting up to a year for a digital lend.  (There are currently wait lists for ebooks now.  That is friction).


                Macmillan’s plan, quite frankly, sucks. 


                I have seen what lack of access to a library does.  When I was in middle school, my neighborhood library closed for a bit, then reopened (sort of), then closed again, then reopened in a smaller space, then closed, and finally when I was in college, reopened.  Now, I’m lucky.  My parents would buy books, and I live in a city where the next nearest branch is a short trolley ride away.  But at the school level, there were no more trips to the library.  None.  Students read less. 


                While Macmillan is correct, that digital lends are easier than physically picking up the book, there is the question of access.  Someone who lives in a big city has little concern about access.  But a smaller city, a more suburban or rural area – I would imagine digital loans are a god send (if you believe in a god).  At best, at best, the Macmillan rules are harming those library patrons who live in rural areas.


                At worst, and this is the more likely outcome, the embargo is harming both libraries and patrons with no real winning for Macmillan.  The libraries are going to take the heat because of the increase wait times for a recent release.  Macmillan seems to think that this will translate in an increase of eBook sales.   But will it?  Considering the constant state of eBooks being pirated online, this is doubtful. 


                Even if people don’t go towards pirated books (and they shouldn’t), it does not necessary translate to more sales.  There are ways around the no lending or price issue – either by sharing access to an account or reading the book quickly and returning it.  People will even: grasp: wait.


                Some people might even stop reading altogether.


                Or maybe Amazon will win everything and kill libraries. 


                Public libraries are many people’s gateway to knowledge and power.  A student who reads does better than a student who doesn’t.  A person who reads as a child is more likely to read as an adult.  A reader is more likely to buy books when there is money available to do so. Libraries are already facing increasing budget cuts and people wondering “why do we need to pay for a library, I don’t read”.  Limited access to current and popular titles is only going to make countering those foolish points that much harder.  Libraries are needed because they provided the public with access to knowledge.  A person might not be able to afford to get beyond the Post’s paywall, but a library can give them that access.


                With its embargo, Macmillan appears to be declaring war, not so much on libraries, but on the middle and lower classes and knowledge itself.


Work Cited and Bibliography


Albanese, Andrew.  “Major Public Library System Will Boycott Macmillan Ebooks”.  Publisher’s Weekly.  Publishersweekly.com.  Oct 15, 2019.


American Library Association.  “Report on Competition in Digital Books”.  Ala.org.  Delivered to US House of Representatives Judicial Committee on Oct 15, 2019.


Hines, Shawnda.  “ALA launches National Campaign against e-book embargo”.  ALA News.  Ala.org. Sept 11, 2019.


Hines, Shawnda.  “ALA Responds to Macmillan Letter”.  ALA.org.  30 Oct 2019.


“How the Macmillan embargo impacts authors”.  What.com County Library System. Wcls.org. 29 Oct 2019.


Inouye, Alan.  “The Future eBook Pricing”.  American Libraries Magazine.  Americalibrariesmagzine.org.  9 July 2019.


Inouye, Alan S.  “Update on eBook Advocacy”.  American Libraries Magazine. 

americanlibrariesmagzine.org.  9 Sept 2019.


Macdonald, Moira.  “Seattle and King County library patrons will start seeing a change in access to  Macmillan e-books starting this week”.  The Seattle Times.  Seattletimes.online.  Oct 29, 2019.


“Million Checkout Club”.  Overdrive.  Overdrive Company.  Overdrive.com  9 Jan 2019.


Paul, Ian.  “Amazon Prime Book Leading: Your FAQS Answered”.  PC World.  Pcworld.com.  3 Nov 2011.


Sargent, John.  “Draft Memo”.  Publisher’s Weekly.  Publishersweekly.com.  Oct 15, 2019.


Sargent, John.  “Letter to Libraries”.  Macmillan Publishers.  29 Oct 2019.  Accessed: