Below is the entirety of the notice Macmillan Publishing gave on March 17th stating that they are stopping the eBook embargo on libraries! What’s heavily implied in this short statement are the words “for now,” so there may still be future issues. Still, I appreciate the fact that they acknowledge that their restrictions are incredibly harmful with COVID-19 requiring libraries to be digital-only for months. Frankly, if they hadn’t, I would have been more disappointed in the company than for the embargo in the first place.
In November 2019, Macmillan Publishing began a restriction that libraries could only purchase one copy of a new release in the first two months after its publish date. After the eight-week wait, they would be allowed to purchase more. Their goal in doing this, based on thier 4-month test with the Tor imprint, was to help boost sales and bestseller performance which is typically highest in the two months after release. The idea was that libraries purchasing a single copy (even at a drastically inflated price) which many readers were then able to access deprived the publisher of the revenue that would otherwise be gained from those readers purchasing copies of their own.
“Libraries are not competitors with publishers; we are collaborators. This is true, but we are also, first and foremost, important customers.”
To no one’s surprise, this immediately resulted in drastic changes in libraries. Crazy hold times became the norm. Personally I saw some titles with estimated wait times of “87 weeks” and other such insane time frames. That is, before my library joined the boycotts, and stopped purchasing Macmillan titles. As of early March 2020, 96 library systems that collectively serve over 50 million people had joined the boycott in the #eBooksForAll campaign.
CEO John Sargent reported in January that they had seen the (expected) huge drop in sales as a result of the embargo and ensuing boycott. With libraries purchasing significantly fewer copies, their sales took an understandable hit. The ALA and libraries around the country stopped buying new Macmillan titles, and anticipated that if 10% of libraries suspended purchases, the loss of revenue to Macmillan from library purchases would begin to outweigh the benefits they got through the embargo. (A fantastic report detailing this theory is here.)
Libraries who buy one copy and then have 50 people read it minimizes the value they get from that sold copy. As Sargent said at the ALA midwinter meeting, “that drives up the number of lends for every book in every library and that causes the amount of money per reader reading a book to go down.” Macmillan expected that 8% of readers would purchase a copy of their own when it was unavailable at their library.
Having only one digital copy of a new popular title equates to terrible service to their patrons. Large libraries end up with wait times of 6+ months on these titles which is absurdly long. Their purchasing prices are also still very high, and now with even less reward.
Authors lose out on sales from the libraries that joined the boycott eventually representing over 12% of sales. This reduces the amount of people reading their work, with in turn prevents word of mouth promotion and social hype. Libraries report that readers who would have read the Macmillan titles are instead just reading titles from competitor publishers with minimal change in circulation, so these authors are now being ruled out or forgone due to their title’s accessibility.
Low-income households who cannot spare money for book purchases are screwed and lose the best access to a wide range of books they had. People who need digital copies due to a disability or those who don’t live near a physical branch are also hurt by this. And for every reader, insane wait times are depressing and frustrating. Excitement about a new release take a sharp dive when you won’t read it until well after it was ever a “new release.” Losing out on joining the excitement of a community reading a new book close to it’s publish date can detract from the overall experience, as well.
While the embargo has been stopped, it’s clear that this decision is largely due to the impact COVID19 is having on society. With so many places closed, digital loans will be the only way most people can interact with their libraries or with other book purchases for a while. This indicates that this publish-date restriction and lowered digital prices is likely temporary.
It seems that Macmillan has been aware that this embargo is not working as they had hoped it would, as they’ve been working on developing three new potential options for eBook regulations. So far… there are still a lot of problems with the proposals, as far as librarians are concerned.
From all that I’ve read, it seems that there is a primary issue in how eBooks are handled overall, rather than specifically in library use. It seems that Macmillan’s embargo targeted the wrong aspect of the issue, and hopefully librarians, booksellers, publishers, and all other in the book community can find a method that is fair and works for all involves.
In the end, who really stood to benefit the most from these embargoes? Many think it was none other than Amazon.
PS – this is what a word cloud of this post looks like!