Libraries and the e-book market–where do we stand?

I am currently attending the American Library Association Midwinter conference in Philadelphia. This morning I sat in on a meeting with Mr. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishing and a room full of librarians in various states of anger and frustration. The reason for their ire is Macmillan’s policy, which went into effect in November, to embargo (Macmillan calls it windowing) the sale of new e-book titles to libraries following publication.

In early November in Hartford, Conn., several of my state librarian colleagues and I attended a meeting with Mr. Sargent that I wrote about in this blog. At that meeting Mr. Sargent defended his decision and explained that library e-book reads were skyrocketing and taking royalties away from authors and publishers. His embargo, or windowing (I think of it as a black-out period) of library sales, is an attempt to alter the “ecosystem” of libraries, publishers, authors, readers and e-books.

Mr. Sargent’s comments to the librarians today in Philadelphia sounded very much the same as what he said to the state librarians in November with a couple of very significant new bits of information. In today’s meeting he divulged that 55% of “reads” of e-books are by library borrowers. And, most importantly, he acknowledged that eight weeks into this model, the data indicated that Macmillan was losing money on e-book sales. Mr. Sargent was quick to say that he expected that and that the next eight weeks would be critical. In Hartford in November, Mr. Sargent said that his action was based on an assumption that if library customers could not check out an e-book, at least some of them would buy the titles. Today he indicated that he never expected that, which left me puzzled as to what he did expect. The state librarians knew, and tried to tell him, that most library customers don’t operate that way. If they can’t get the e-book they will (a) try to get the print version or, (b) read something else that they can get.

It seems likely that, at least so far, Macmillan is losing money on sales of e-books to libraries that they are not offsetting with new sales to individual readers. We also observe that other publishers have not joined Macmillan in this experiment. They are happy to watch them take the brunt and see if they make or lose money. We would be in a much worse position if other Big Five publishers followed Macmillan’s lead. Truthfully, Macmillan doesn’t have that many New York Times bestsellers. One of the few is Me by Elton John, which ordinarily libraries would have bought scads of in digital format, but they could not. Another hot title, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (2020, Flatiron, a Macmillan imprint), is kicking up its own controversy among libraries and the general public.

Librarians have indicated a willingness to discuss with Macmillan other models that would be more profitable for the company and more agreeable to libraries. I think it is too early for that. Let’s see what happens. Macmillan is conducting an experiment that will ultimately indicate the leverage that libraries hold in the market. If Macmillan reverses its policy and if other publishers do not adopt similar pricing/availability models, then we will know that libraries have much more influence in the publishing market than Mr. Sargent thought they did.

At any rate, I think in many ways Macmillan has done libraries a favor. First, libraries do not have to dilute their budgets by buying these titles in two different formats. Second, they will give us an indication of our influence in the market. But third and most importantly, they give libraries an opening to experiment with other models of delivering digital content to the public. Of course the public wants the New York Times bestsellers from the Big Five publishers and every book recommended by Reese and Oprah. But there is a vast universe of very good books published by companies that want to do business with libraries. And librarians are in a position to crowdsource recommended titles that are every bit as good–often much better–than those recommended by celebrity mega-influencers.

Let’s stop fretting about Macmillan and thank them for the gift they have given us to consider new models, to flex our collective muscle in the “ecosystem,” to make purposeful use of our collection dollars, and to take a more active role in influencing the reading choices of our customers.

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