An e-book embargo by publishing giant Macmillan has rankled librarians around the country, including local officials who worry it will add to already-long queues for some of their most popular authors.
“In library land, it’s been aflutter,” Asotin County Library Adult Services Librarian Erin Kolb said of the controversy over the embargo, which allows library systems large and small to buy just one copy of titles during the two months after their release. “It’s all about equitable access. In this case, we want to meet patron demand and we’re not able to. And it’s not because of something that I can control, like when my budget doesn’t allow for that.”
The embargo took effect Nov. 1, prompting boycotts of Macmillan titles by library systems around the country. That hasn’t happened yet with the Valnet system that encompasses most local public and school district libraries, but Valnet board Chairwoman Lynn Johnson said the body will vote on the issue at its January meeting.
“My concern is that our patrons are going to be punished if they have to wait six to eight weeks to get a book, and it’s a change of service that we can’t control,” said Johnson, who is also the director of the Lewiston City Library. “There’s never an easy way to not feel the pain or pass that on.”
Kolb said the Washington Digital Library Consortium, of which Asotin County is a member, did overwhelmingly vote to boycott Macmillan. She said popular Macmillan authors in the OverDrive system that Valnet uses to lend e-books include C.J. Box, Janet Evanovich, Kristin Hannah, Liane Moriarty, Louise Penny, Nora Roberts, J.D. Robb and Brandon Sanderson. She said about 4,500 people use OverDrive, a number that has grown by more than 1,000 over the past two years. The collection has about 5,400 e-books from various publishers available to check out.
The American Library Association has also launched a petition drive to put pressure on Macmillan, with more than 219,000 signatures collected as of Monday evening.
E-books — which can be downloaded and read on various types of mobile devices — have exploded in popularity over the past two decades, overtaking hardcover book sales in the early years of the 2010s. Free e-book lending by public libraries has also surged, and publishers have tried to increase their profits by charging them a premium price for each copy, setting a cap on the number of checkouts or limiting the amount of time a library can loan the title.
In a recent report by National Public Radio, Macmillan CEO John Sargent compared e-book sales to the movie business, with most customers buying right after a new release. He said the embargo was in response to fears that e-book lending by libraries was “cannibalizing” those early sales. He also said 45 percent of Macmillan’s e-books are being borrowed from libraries, a number that continues to grow.
Johnson said the tension between those public and private interests is an age-old question.
“How do libraries provide services without being stuck in the middle between the publishers and those who need to make money, and those of us who provide a service for free to people?” she said.
And the ever-increasing financial burden libraries face to provide digital content like e-books, audiobooks or streaming video has Johnson worried about the future.
“At what point is it not sustainable?” she asked. “But I can’t imagine not having e-books and audiobooks. They’re just so popular.”
Johnson added that publishers are understandably trying to bolster their business by limiting their e-book sales to libraries, creating a level of frustration among patrons they believe will fuel greater demand for their embargoed titles. But they may be underappreciating the free marketing that libraries offer.
“Authors don’t want to lose out on money, and we don’t want to short authors,” she said. “But a lot of times people come to the library and take a look at a book — or maybe don’t get to finish a book — and then they go buy the book anyway.”
A comment on one Kansas library’s news release about the embargo illustrated that effect, with the patron saying he bought five more of one author’s books after first being introduced to her by his library.
Kolb said she’s worried that local libraries will take the blame when lines to check out Macmillan titles grow to dozens — or even hundreds — of patrons, bringing wait times that could last months or even longer than a year.
“It’s not new for patrons to have to wait a week for popular items at the library,” she said. “That’s part of being a library user. We all get that. But it comes down to the fact that the restrictions are coming from the publisher.”
The vendor who runs OverDrive has put a disclaimer on Macmillan titles so readers will know the library isn’t responsible for the limited number of copies, Kolb added.
“So I do feel like it took a little heat off of front-line library staff to have to explain it,” she said.
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