I am in Hartford, Connecticut, for the annual fall meeting of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, or COSLA, the state librarians of the 50 states and several territories.
This morning, a group of ten state librarians and the Executive Director of COSLA met with Mr. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishing Company. The meeting came at an interesting moment: this week marked the beginning of Macmillan’s controversial new pricing/availability policy for library e-book purchase. Under the policy, each library (regardless of population size) can purchase one copy of every new e-book and that copy will be perpetual use and is sold at the consumer price for the book. However, after that copy, Macmillan will not sell any further copies to the library for an eight-week period. After that, the library will pay the library cost, which is much higher than the retail cost of the item. This policy has provoked a huge negative reaction–including calls for boycotts–among libraries across the U.S. The American Library Association, COSLA, and many others have urged Macmillan to reconsider this action.
I was one of the ten who met today with Mr. Sargent and the meeting lasted over two and a half hours. He explained that the Macmillan policy arose from his belief that the amount that librarians are spending on e-books is ever escalating as they try to keep up with demand for front-list (bestseller) titles, allowing no funds to purchase mid-list titles. Meanwhile, the circulation of library e-books is rising exponentially, and, in Mr. Sargent’s view, causing a corresponding decrease in revenues for authors and publishers. He posited that not only is the policy good for small libraries that typically would purchase only one copy of an e-book, it would potentially help all libraries along with authors and publishers. Without any other model, he says, the publishers would have no choice but to continue to raise prices to libraries, causing more pressure on library budgets.
We appreciate Mr. Sargent’s time and his thoughts, but the state librarians did not buy his argument. While it is undeniable that the cost of e-books is untenable, that use is tending to increase, and that library budgets are pushed to the max, we expressed skepticism that a reader who cannot borrow a copy of a library e-book will purchase the item. We also doubted the assumption of an inverse correlation between library circulation and publisher revenue. We questioned the data upon which Macmillan’s decisions have been based. And we noted that many libraries are going to discontinue purchasing materials from Macmillan, though Mr. Sargent seems confident that the impact of the boycotts will be offset by greater revenues to authors and publishers. He commented that he had heard from few authors with concerns about the new policy.
Libraries have several options for how to respond to the embargo. They can, of course, continue to do business with Macmillan, buy the initial item, then buy further copies once the embargo is lifted. Or, they can opt not to purchase Macmillan titles.
While TSLAC does not have an official position or recommendation to libraries about how they should respond, libraries may want to consider that other publishers are watching the results of Macmillan’s action. If those publishers see that in fact, the embargo is successful, there is little library reaction, and if author and publisher revenues increase, then other publishers will likely follow Macmillan’s lead. That would mean that black-out periods on new materials could be imposed by other publishers, greatly impacting libraries’ ability to provide new and popular e-books to the public and, ultimately, making libraries much less relevant to their users and communities.
Certainly library patrons want to read the New York Times bestsellers. But there are many thousands of books published in all genres every year, especially in this exciting new era of small publishing and self-publishing. Libraries could consider the Macmillan embargo as an opportunity to explore ways to encourage readers to discover other writers who they may enjoy as much or more than those that publish with Macmillan. TSLAC has begun ordering e-books for Texas libraries. We will be favoring publishers who provide library-friendly terms, including books with perpetual use.
We may have one point of agreement with Macmillan: it might be time to disrupt the model of our book purchasing. We should take this opportunity to flex our book-buying muscle, favor publishers that give us the most favorable terms, and use our considerable expertise in readers advisory service to discover and crowd-source new authors. The alternative could be to find ourselves unable to effectively serve avid readers who have comprised one of our most dedicated customer groups.
ALA Press Release regarding Macmillan price policy: http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2019/07/ala-denounces-new-macmillan-library-lending-model-urges-library-customers
Open Letter from John Sargent: https://d1x9nywezhk0w2.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/29160131/A-Letter-from-John-Sargent-.pdf