Library users blocked from new e-books as publishers impose tough restrictions

Vailey Oehlke image

Dear library patrons and community members,

Multnomah County Library (MCL) works hard to serve you. We are committed to meeting the changing needs of our community by providing free and open access to the resources, programs, technology and spaces that people want and need. But we are facing a daunting new challenge: large publishers are imposing new restrictions that limit libraries’ ability to offer users new digital content.

Beginning November 1, 2019, Macmillan publishers, one of the country’s “big five” publishers, is imposing an eight-week embargo on new e-books. This embargo means that for the first eight weeks after a book is released, libraries will only be able to purchase a single copy of new Macmillan e-books. This restriction applies whether a library serves a community of a thousand people or a million people.

The impact of this embargo and the other severe restrictions being placed by publishers on public libraries across the country will hurt readers near and far. Multnomah County Library is the sixth top-circulating library in the country for digital content. Under these new restrictions, the wait for many Macmillan e-book titles will skyrocket to four months or more.

What’s more, libraries are forced to license this content and cannot own it. A licensing model increases costs and limits how many times patrons can check out a book before the library must re-license. Many people also aren’t aware that e-book costs to libraries are often FOUR TIMES the price of a retail copy. With these limitations in place, we estimate that MCL will soon spend at least 25 percent of its e-book budget ($307,000) on re-licensing items already in the collection. These excessive costs will prevent the library from buying a broader range of titles or buying more copies of popular titles in order to reduce wait times.

On top of this, Amazon—which owns audio and e-platforms Audible and Kindle—is an unapologetic charging bull within the publishing industry, as it exclusively signs digital and audio rights for authors like Dean Koontz and Mindy Kaling and refuses to license those titles to libraries.

Macmillan has said that libraries undercut publishers’ profits by allowing readers free access to materials that they would otherwise purchase. Macmillan is presenting this as a zero-sum game—that every circulation of a library book is a lost sale for the publisher and author. That reductivist argument is disingenuous and capricious, and it shuts out those with the fewest resources. Not everyone can afford to use Amazon as an alternative to their public library.

The result of these unfair practices by publishers puts not only libraries and readers in a challenging position, but also authors, who should not be forced to choose between making a living and supporting the mission of a library to make information free and open to all. Public libraries provide free marketing and massive exposure to authors and publishers at more than 16,500 locations in communities across the United States and online. In fact, there are more public libraries in the United States than there are McDonald’s or Starbucks locations.

Multnomah County Library has a long history of supporting authors. Every day, patrons come into our libraries or browse the online catalog to find new titles to enjoy. We offer readers advisory services like My Librarian where library staff help readers find new books and authors. At 19 libraries, MCL hosts storytimes, author readings and other programs that expose people to books, resources and authors that they may not have discovered otherwise. Our Library Writers Project offers an opportunity for local authors to have their work added to the library’s e-book collection. As an integral part of the literacy ecosystem, public libraries encourage reading from the earliest ages, and support it over a lifetime by introducing people to content as their interests, needs and technologies change.

These harsh and unfair restrictions on public libraries are a troubling trend that we must stop. Please join me, readers and libraries across the country in opposing Macmillan’s new e-book embargo.

Sign the petition at ebooksforall.org to tell Macmillan that access to e-books should not be delayed or denied.

Thank you for supporting your public library.

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Vailey Oehlke
Director of Libraries
Multnomah County Library
Former president, Public Library Association