The e-book war–TSLAC is watching closely

The library community erupted several days ago when Macmillan Publishers announced a new policy that will greatly restrict access to electronic books. The policy will allow libraries to purchase only one copy of a newly released title in e-book format after which Macmillan will impose an eight-week embargo (euphemistically referred to as “windowing” by the industry) on further purchases of the title. Several months ago, the same publisher imposed a four-month embargo on their Tor imprint.

The American Library Association has denounced the Macmillan e-book embargo and has urged the company to reconsider. Public Library Association President (and San Antonio Public Library Director) Ramiro Salazar issued a comment that the policy is “further evidence of a troubling trend in the publishing industry.” Mr. Salazar puts it mildly. Alarming might be a better word to describe this trend that is clearly intended to curtail the public’s access to e-books through libraries and force them to purchase new titles.

According to Macmillan’s own announcement (in the form of a letter to authors, illustrators and agents), “45 percent of ebook reads in the U.S. are being borrowed for free from libraries. And that number is rapidly growing.” Will Macmillan make up that number of reads with sales? It seems unlikely, meaning that this publisher’s declared war on the sharing economy will likely result in authors having fewer people reading their work.

Public libraries are struggling to meet a high demand for e-book content. For years libraries have faced other hurdles such as higher-than-retail prices for e-books, time limited titles, or titles that expire after a set number of check-outs. If other publishers follow Macmillan’s lead, libraries will have no option to purchase the popular materials that the public demands.

In July, TSLAC introduced E-Read Texas, a new statewide e-book program that will begin by providing the SimplyE e-book application to small community libraries. As I write, a working group of public librarians from across the state, with input from TSLAC staff, are selecting what will be a significant collection of e-books for statewide use to be released in September. We are watching the Macmillan news very closely. As with all our e-resource purchases, we will be buying books that provide the most favorable terms to the state of Texas. We expect to spend $2,000,000 on e-books in 2019 and 2020. We will look for e-books from publishers that offer perpetual use and, where available, simultaneous multiple use. We will look beyond publishers that put limitations on e-book sales to libraries in favor of those that are eager to do business with libraries.

Libraries have bought and will continue to buy a huge volume of books from publishers. (libraries held 391 million e-book volumes in 2017 according to this excellent account from CNN by Librarian blogger Jessamyn West.) And we are the main customers of the so-called “long tail” of older materials from the publishers’ catalogs. Many libraries are considering whether they want to continue to do business with publishers that do not value the library market.

Readers love to get the best-selling books featured on the New York Times Bestseller lists. But perhaps, faced with not being able to access e-book formats for these popular books in libraries, library customers will begin to discover the huge universe of excellent fiction and non-fiction authors who are often overlooked on the top bestseller lists, but whose books are equally enjoyable. Perhaps library staffs and organizations will start recommending favorite books from publishers who are more library-friendly, just as bookstore employees recommend their favorite books to browsers.

TSLAC will continue to monitor these trends and we will be in dialogue with the library community about the e-book market. Together we will pursue collection development strategies that provide the most material to the public at the most favorable possible rates.


The Macmillan letter to authors, illustrators and agents:

The press American Library Association statement:

The Public Library Association statement:

The Jessamyn West article in CNN:

More resources from Library Journal InfoDocket:

For more on E-Read Texas:

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