Macmillan stands by e-book lending change amid ALA outcry

Macmillan stands by e-book lending change amid ALA outcry

Macmillan in the US has apologised to librarians for not informing them of upcoming changes to its e-book lending policy but has refused to amend it amid an outcry and 150,000 signature petition.

From 1st November, the publisher plans to impose a two-month embargo on new release e-books in public libraries. Under the new terms, libraries can only buy one perpetual access e-book during the first eight weeks of publication with multiple two-year licences available after that. The change has provoked a furious backlash from the American Library Association (ALA) which was due to handover a petition against the move yesterday (30th October).

In a letter revealed by Publishers Marketplace, c.e.o. John Sargent has now written to libraries to make clear the policy following “occasionally brutal” feedback. He wrote: “First, I would like to apologize. It is clear to me that I should have written to all of you directly with our terms change. I meant no disrespect. Also, please know that this change was well considered and deeply discussed with over 35 library systems, with your suppliers, and with the ALA. We shared the analysis we performed and the data we collected.”

Sargent said the company had complied with requests for perpetual access for the first copy of each e-book and slashed that copy’s price by half. He added Macmillan had vowed to offer e-books at “radically low prices or even free if a library can provide a means test”.

Turning to the controversial “windowing” policy, he insisted: “We believe the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed e-books decreases the perceived economic value of a book. I know that you pay us for these e-books, but to the reader, they are free. In the pre-digital world reading for free from libraries was part of the business model. To borrow a book in those days required transportation, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forgot to get them back on time. In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market. As the development of apps and extensions continues, and as libraries extend their reach statewide as well as nationally, it is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy. This is causing book-buying customers to change habits, and they are fueling the tremendous growth in e-book lending.”

Sargent said the change in policy had come after a year of “talking, listening, testing, and analysing”. He wrote: “I realize the lack of availability in the first eight weeks will frustrate some e-book patrons, and that will make your jobs more difficult. 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. We are trying to find a middle ground.

“We are not trying to hurt libraries; we are trying to balance the needs of the system in a new and complex world. We believe windowing for eight weeks is the best way to do that. I am the first to admit we may be wrong. But we need to try to address this issue. We look forward to talking with many of you in the weeks and months ahead as we all begin to understand the effects of our new policy.”

The letter comes after the ALA submitted a report to Congress, which has launched an inquiry into digital markets, saying “unfair behaviour” by Amazon and major publishers was causing libraries “concrete harm”.

The ALA said Macmillan’s letter “misrepresents ALA’s longstanding and good-faith efforts to equitably balance the rights and privileges of readers, libraries, authors, and publishers”.

In a statement it said: “ALA (and all the library systems we are aware of) has consistently opposed any effort to delay or deny library access to digital content. Macmillan Publishers is the only large publisher (of the 'Big Five') that perceives a business need to limit library purchases. ALA has frequently requested but never received data or analysis that demonstrates that library lending undermines book sales. It is simply false to state otherwise.”

It added: “Whether intended or not, delaying or denying access to content hurts libraries and readers. An embargo is the wrong answer to an unsubstantiated problem that no other major publisher seems to face. If Sargent cannot or will not hear us, we will continue to take action with our community leaders and patrons, with Congress, with state legislators and attorneys general, and with publishers and authors who view libraries as allies rather than adversaries.”