Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Libraries Must Draw the Line on E-books - Sari Feldman, Publishers Weekly

Librarian Sari Feldman
Because so few avid readers can afford, or have the space, for all the books they want to read, they are highly dependent upon their local libraries to fill in the gaps. I have read an average of about fifty library books per year for the last ten years, so that’s most certainly the case for me.  And I’m not talking about just tree-books, I also check out e-books and audible books. Sometimes the titles I’m interested in are readily available; other times I find myself waiting for more than fifty others to read a copy of the book before my turn at it finally comes. That’s frustrating - but apparently, it’s not frustrating enough for Macmillan.

About a year ago, Macmillan placed a four-month library “embargo” on e-books published by its Tor imprint.  Now, it seems that the publisher has become convinced by its embargo that releasing new e-book titles to public libraries sooner than four months after publication depresses sales of the titles to the consumer, and it has indicated that the embargo is likely to be extended to titles released by any and all other Macmillan imprints. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the Tor imprint, anyway, so the Macmillan trick hardly impacted me.  But there are plenty of other Macmillan titles that I do want to read – and I don’t want to wait four months to read them just because I can’t afford to buy all the books I read in a given year.  I sympathize with the publishers, and I understand that they are searching for the business model that will maximize profits in an environment in which readers have wholeheartedly embraced e-books and audiobooks. I get it.  But I think that Macmillan is taking it too far.

According to librarian Sari Feldman’s recent article in Publishers Weekly, public libraries are already paying “three to five times the consumer price for two-year accessto e-books” to pretty much all publishers (but only Macmillan actually embargoes titles for four months). She gives the example of Elin Hilderbrand’s The Rumorselling to libraries for $84 per copy and to consumers for $14.99. At first, I was also against access being limited to two years, but I suppose that compares to something close to the average shelf life of a physical library book, so it does make some sense.  But those inflated per-copy prices are a big reason that I’m lined up behind 50-150 people on the more popular titles that I don’t jump on right away.  Do publishers make more money by selling fewer copies at five times the price than they would make by selling some higher number of copies to libraries at the consumer price? That sounds like a question out of Economics 101, but I doknow it would ease the pressure on public library budgets everywhere.

And now, according to Feldman, Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster have placed a two-year limit on copies of audible books sold to libraries for streaming purposes.  Can the other major publishers be far behind? 

That brings us to the super villain of retailing, Amazon.  Amazon, via its Audible service, is said to be aggressively pursuing exclusive agreements with publishers that would preclude those publishers from selling any copies at all to libraries of “the most highly desirable audio content, including from major authors such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Lewis.” The only good news in audio books that Feldman shares with us is that “four of the Big Five publishers – Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster – have thus far committed to a no-embargo policy for new release titles” (on audiobooks).  That’s something, I guess.

But between the usual evilness of Amazon and the greed of Macmillan, the cracks in the public library business model are starting to become obvious. Despite what politicians and retailers like to believe, there are millions and millions of people who love their local libraries and depend on them to provide the reading material they cannot afford to purchase for themselves.  Too, I am particularly concerned with publishers deciding to limit ready access to audiobooks because so many sight-impaired people depend on them for entertainment and access to current trends and thought.  (And since I have the beginning stages of macular degeneration in both eyes, this hits very close to home.)

Maybe it’s time for public libraries to ask for some help from the Federal Trade Commission before things get even worse for library patrons.  And maybe it’s time for library patrons everywhere to speak up for themselves.  This is what we pay all of those childish do-nothings in Congress to help us with, after all.


  1. Very interesting read, I personally don't use ebooks or audiobooks so I had no idea this type of thing happened but I know many many people love them.

    As always, Amazon are trying to ruin everything.

    1. As my eyesight worsened, I became a reluctant convert to both, Connor. And unfortunately, for that same reason, I can see both of them becoming more and more a part of my reading. E-books because I can easily control the font size, and audiobooks because font size doesn't matter. I've had two eye-surgeries in the last three weeks and that's bought me a few more years of decent eyesight, but the ultimate end is inevitable.

      Thanks for stopping by.