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Macmillan eBook Embargo

Posted about 4 years ago by Phil Shepard

The landscape of eBook lending inside the library is about to change due to a newly issued embargo being placed on libraries. It’s a change that may go wholly unnoticed to the larger audience but will be very recognizable to the readers who rely on the library for their newest eBooks, which as it turns out is quite a lot.

How Libraries Purchase eBooks

For those who may not know, the purchasing of an eBook is quite different from a physical one. The differences between the two mediums caused publishing houses to create a new pricing model for libraries. Most publishers use a two year licensing model. Yup, that’s right. Libraries buy a temporary license which allows them to include the book in their digital collection. Unlike buying a physical book, eBook purchases are just purchases of licenses. So when the two year license ends, librarians decide whether or not to keep the book a part of their collection. The flexibility comes at a cost.

The pricing model for libraries is also very different from the average consumer purchasing an eBook. A new release costs between $15 and $20 for a regular purchase through Amazon or other similarly sized eBook retailers. For a library that same item costs around $50, almost tripled in price and for temporary ownership.

An eBook’s price model rejects its potential and creates limitations not unlike a physical book.  Those licenses are distributed with restrictions to the amount of copies available for checking out. I remember my first experience with eBooks in a library. It seemed baffling and kind of awkward. Part of this eBook’s sentence involved only one person at any given time taking a peek. Here is this technology which breaks the barriers of a physical book’s limitations and potentially provides unlimited access for everyone, at any time and what happens? Publishers realize this might be great for the world but bad for business. So libraries are forced to play by the rules. And here we have a very powerful technology that, thanks to the corporate pursuit, gets stripped of its superpowers and dropped back to the same playing field with paper books.

The Rules of the Embargo

So what’s the deal with all this embargo business? Macmillan publishing house leads the new eBook embargo model. They are considered one of the Big Five in the world along with Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Some of the authors published under the Macmillan name are David McCullough, Mark Kay Andrew, Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nora Roberts and many others to name a few.

Macmillan’s embargo will establish new rules for the purchasing of their eBooks. Libraries can only buy one copy of Macmillan’s newest eBook releases. Yup, just one. After the first 8 week, libraries can purchase additional copies. But only after 8 weeks from the publication date.

John Sargent, the CEO of Macmillan, sent a memo addressed to authors, illustrators and agents outlining their plans for the embargo. He says that almost 50% of Macmillan eBook reads come from free borrows within libraries. He goes on later to say: “Historically we have been able to balance the great importance of libraries with the value of your work. The current e-lending system(meaning libraries providing free access) does not do that. We believe our new terms are a step toward reestablishing that balance.”

So there you have it. Macmillan’s embargo is attempting to rebalance the scales of eBook access by disrupting the patron’s access to digital content. This will create unfavorably long hold lists. And in some cases a patron may only receive an item a year after its release. The effect of the embargo will limit access to those who simply can’t afford new releases. All in days work of stepping toward reestablishing that balance I suppose.

Richmond Public Library Boycott

In lieu of the embargo, Richmond Public Library is suspending all electronic purchases under the Macmillan name. Many other libraries across the nation are also.  As of late this represents 1,163 locations in 28 states all participating in the boycott. So in the coming months certain expected titles will not be available through our digital collection.

To read more about what all this entails, how it may affect you and other library patrons and how to get involved, visit our eBook Embargo page.

Phil Shepard

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