Book Flap

An E-book Revolt Is Brewing at Your Local Library

A major publishing house wants to embargo its new releases. Librarians are fighting back.

By Julia Silverman November 21, 2019

Image: Michael Novak

Nora Roberts fans, take note: The wait to borrow a library e-copy of the queen of romance’s latest bodice ripper just got a lot longer.

That’s because Multnomah County Library is on the front lines of a pitched battle against one of the New York City publishing world’s Big Five houses—Macmillan, publisher of Roberts, Elton John, and Man Booker Award winner Hillary Mantel, among many others.

In late fall, the Multnomah County library system stopped buying any new e-books from Macmillan, joining dozens of other libraries from around the country. The purchasing freeze comes in protest of the publisher’s decision to place new e-releases under a virtual embargo, with libraries permitted to purchase only a single digital copy during the first eight weeks of a book’s release. (Imagine a hot new Hollywood movie opening on only one screen in town, and playing there and only there for two months straight).

The publisher has argued library e-books are cannibalizing their digital book sales, at a time when the publishing world is operating at slim margins.If it gets harder to check out an e-book from the library, the thinking goes, more readers will shell out for a digital copy.

“Your patrons would be happy if they could get any book they wanted instantly and seamlessly, but that would be severely debilitating for authors, publishers, and retailers,” Macmillan CEO John Sargent wrote in a letter to librarians. “We are trying to find a middle ground.”

Enter the librarians. MCL’s Vailey Oehlke says Macmillan’s actions leave the library as “the proverbial frog in a pot of water that keeps getting warmer.” In a letter to readers, Oehlke wrote that the policy opens a haves vs. have-nots gulf that’s in direct opposition to the public library’s cherished books-for-all ethos.

The library already pays a premium for e-books, about $60 for each one it purchases, a license that typically needs to be renewed after two years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first. The constant renewals mean digital e-books now consume about 25 percent of the library’s overall purchasing budget, according to library spokesman Shawn Cunningham. In 2019, the Multnomah County Library spent $120,000 on Macmillan e-books alone.

Meanwhile, Congress is wading into the fray, with a House antitrust subcommittee investigating competition in the e-book market, including Macmillan’s embargo experiment and the dark overlord of the publishing industry, Amazon, which publishes plenty of original digital content that can’t be borrowed from your local library.

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