A major change to e-book access for public libraries will take effect on Nov. 1 after Macmillan Publishers decided to impose an eight-week embargo on newly released e-books. 

The embargo will limit a library system to one copy of each e-book title, meaning that in the case of the Williamson County Public Library system, a single title would be shared between patrons across all five locations, exacerbating already long wait times.

In a July memo to Macmillan authors, Macmillan illustrators, and agents, Macmillan CEO John Sargent detailed the embargo decision after Sci-Fi publisher Tor Books, a division of Macmillan, did a test run that blocked libraries from lending digital copies of new Tor Books releases until four months after the retail release date.  

This was done, Sargent said, “in response to our growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales.” 

The move appears to have been successful as the new restrictions will impact readers across every genre, age range and income level. 

The change has seen public outcry across the nation, namely with a petition launched by the American Library Association on ebooksforall.org sitting at over 138,00 signatures.

“Historically we have been able to balance the great importance of libraries with the value of your work,” Sargent said in his letter. “The current e-lending system does not do that. We believe our new terms are a step toward reestablishing that balance.”

For the ALA and others in opposition to the embargo, the question seems to be, at what cost? 

One concern singled out by the ALA is the potential for the embargo to disproportionately library patrons with visual or other disabilities who rely on e-books for adjustable text size and spacing or who may benefit from lightweight, easier-to-hold e-readers. 

“ALA’s goal is to send a clear message to Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent: e-book access should be neither denied nor delayed,” ALA Executive Director Mary Ghikas said in a news release. “Our members are telling us their patrons want an easy way to join this movement and demand e-book access for all. We heard them, and today’s launch is the beginning of a public advocacy campaign in support of that. Libraries have millions of allies out there, and we’re inviting them to take action.”

Susan Earl, the director of the John P. Holt Brentwood Library voiced disappointment in Macmillan in an email.

“This embargo affects the Library by not being able to serve our patrons with the highest standards in which they and staff are accustomed. Limiting access to e-books is a disservice to our public and the Library is disappointed in Macmillan’s decision,” Earl said.

Motlow State Community College branch librarian and legislative monitor for the Tennessee Library Association Sharon Kay Edwards wrote in an October op-ed in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette that in 2018 over 3.9 million downloads were from The Tennessee Regional eBook and Audiobook Download System (R.E.A.D.S.,) an online library that serves 91 rural counties. 

Edwards points out that as rural broadband access becomes a topic of importance for many Tennesseans, including Governor Lee’s administration, that the numbers of people reading e-books will mostly likely increase.

For librarians this is potentially a turning point that could impact the entire book publishing industry and library services across the nation as Macmillan is one of what Book Business Magazine called “The Big 5” with  Hachette, HarperCollins,  Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster making up the rest of the major publishing pack that dominates an estimated 80% of the market.

This could signal other publishers to follow suite said Nolensville Branch Library Manager Jennifer Hunsicker; this is a concern that has been echoed throughout the library services world, and a decision that could further hinder the already tight budgets of many rural libraries.

“They may set a precedent and if that happens then that really hurts the library and the community,” Hunsicker said.

Bibliotheca, a company whose stated mission is “dedicated to the development of library management solutions that help sustain and grow libraries around the world,” released a letter in which Senior Vice President of Digital Products Tom Mercer, detailed various changes in the e-book lending industry with publishers implementing different changes to contracts and terms in order to curb what they see as lost sales opportunities. 

Among those changes that Mercer outlined is the change from libraries having unlimited access to e-books that they have purchased to what equates to be a subscription-based purchases.

This means that a library might purchase an e-book that really only allows the book to be lent to library patrons for a certain length of time, such as two-years, or a certain number of times — whichever comes first.

In addition to the arbitrary terms of service, Hunsicker said that e-books and audiobooks often cost more for libraries to purchase per copy than they would for an individual consumer.

While neither the John P. Holt Brentwood Library or the Nolensville Branch Library have exact numbers on the average wait times for e-books, patrons have been accustomed to currently waiting weeks for titles. These wait times are expected to grow.

According to Hunsicker, the Nolensville Branch Library has saw 8,944 electronic titles checked out for fiscal year 2018-19, up from 8,489 last year, a number that is expected to rise.

Hunsicker said that regardless of all the challenges and technological changes libraries will remain and will continue to serve their communities, but that libraries and the ALA need those who are eventually negatively impacted by the change to speak up and voice any concerns publicly. She said that currently, public outcry is the only defense against the actions of a corporation.

“We just morph and adapt,” Hunsicker said. “I don’t think we’ll ever go away.”

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