Public libraries are providing more copies of e-books, or digital books, to users than ever before, but a policy change from one of the largest publishing companies in the United States is disrupting how New Orleanians and others across the country access new titles online.
Macmillan Publishers announced that beginning Nov. 1, library systems are only allowed to purchase one copy of new Macmillan e-books during the first eight weeks of publication. (The embargo only applies to Macmillan online text editions, not audiobooks accessed online.)
A wave of library systems nationwide have pushed back against the policy, arguing that it impedes access to new material for library users and will lead to long wait lists for new popular titles.
The New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) has joined several major public library systems in boycotting purchasing new e-book releases from Macmillan, hoping to put pressure on the company to do away with the policy. The NOPL system spends tens of thousands of dollars on e-books a year at rates around two to three times what an individual would pay for an e-book, Styons said.
“We really just felt kind of just stymied,” said Jessica Styons, the acting director of NOPL. “So, rather than just wait for other publishers to decide, ‘Oh, maybe this is working, we should do this,' we want to send a message: We are consumers. We are a big part of your business.”
Under the new policy, the first copy would cost libraries half of what it does now (around $30 as compared to $60), and the library system would have access to it forever, but only one person would be able to rent the copy at a time.
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That means that all 15 of the public libraries in New Orleans would share a sole e-book during the first two months after it’s released. In states where libraries purchase all their e-books together, that could mean only a single copy would be allowed for the whole state at first.
After eight weeks, libraries will no longer have the option to pay for that perpetual copy but may lease copies at full price, meaning the library won’t have access to the copy after it is lent 52 times or after two years, whichever comes first.
Libraries in the NOPL system will still continue to purchase new audiobooks and print materials from Macmillan, as well as titles released before the embargo.
Macmillan CEO John Sargent said in a letter to librarians on Oct. 30 that the company was not trying to negatively impact libraries but was attempting to find a way to address the effect of the “tremendous growth in e-book lending” on the publishing industry as a whole. He argued that traditionally borrowing books from a library took more effort and that having to drive back and forth from the library and pay late fines made some people prefer to buy from stores rather than rent from libraries. But e-books have removed those hindrances.
“It is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy,” Sargent wrote. “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.”
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In the letter, Sargent also said the company has had a policy where it will offer e-books at free or reduced prices “if a library can provide a means test.” Its program Open eBooks gives free titles for children from low-income communities without checkouts or holds, according to its website.
But Styons noted that, by many metrics, book sales are on the rise — although authors continue to earn less. She also added that the library is able to accommodate more readers through e-books, and that the policy will hinder access for these readers. For example, the ability to change font sizes helps readers who have difficulties with vision or those with learning disabilities, and the ability to rent digitally helps those who may not have access to transportation.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell has also signed a statement by the Urban Libraries Council calling for "equitable access to e-books" and calling out publishing companies for embargoes like Macmillan's and for charging libraries "unreasonably high prices" for digital books.
“This is about equity, access and intellectual freedom,” Styons said, “and we want to make sure that New Orleans citizens are able to get those things.”