A woman, holding a child, looks through book titles in the card catalog at Everett Public Library in 1956. E-books now allow library users to download books, but one publisher recently changed its rules for libraries, curtailing the availability of e-books. (Everett Public Library Northwest Room Collection)

A woman, holding a child, looks through book titles in the card catalog at Everett Public Library in 1956. E-books now allow library users to download books, but one publisher recently changed its rules for libraries, curtailing the availability of e-books. (Everett Public Library Northwest Room Collection)

Editorial: Publisher’s ebook embargo a threat to libraries

Limiting Everett and Sno-Isle libraries to one ebook copy of new titles isn’t publishing.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Maybe you’re one of the thousands of people in Snohomish County — and more than 950 million worldwide — who have taken to electronic books and readers since they became widely available about 20 years ago.

And maybe you’re looking forward to one or two recently released titles and also are registered card users at either the Everett Public Library or the Sno-Isle Libraries system, titles such as Diane Chamberlaine’s novel, “Big Lies in a Small Town,” or Peter van Agtmeal’s recent nonfiction look at the United Nations, “Inside the Glass Wall.”

If you’re interested in those or any book from Macmillan Publishers, you could be on either libraries’ “hold list” for a while. Each library system has reluctantly agreed to an embargo imposed at the start of this month by Macmillan, one of the five major book publishers, that limits libraries to one ebook of each new title for its first eight weeks of availability.

The embargo policy is Macmillan’s response to what it sees as unfairness to its authors and itself: the lending policies of libraries that it alleges eat into the sales of its ebooks.

Because it’s “even easier to borrow rather than buy,” Macmillan’s chief executive John Sargent said in a letter to library customers, the growth in ebook lending now causes a problem across the “publishing ecosystem” for authors, illustrators, agents, publishers, retailers and others.

Libraries and others, however, are criticizing the move as going against the time-honored work of libraries to provide access for all to literature and information.

Some libraries have even organized boycotts; the King County Library System is no longer purchasing ebooks from Macmillan, as are others across the country. Neither Everett nor Sno-Isle have joined the boycott, but both have registered complaints with Macmillan and are considering other responses.

“Our mission as a library is to provide equitable access to information, and this stands in the way of that,” said Everett Public Library Director Abigail Cooley, last week.

Ebooks for both Snohomish County library systems are not niche collections, but are frequently checked out by their registered users. Everett Public Library checked out more than 34,000 ebooks in 2018 and has already surpassed 38,000 checkouts for this year.

As harsh as the embargo is for Everett Public Library and its two branches, it’s worse for Sno-Isle. Sno-Isle, which offers 23 libraries and other services in Snohomish and Island counties, checked out more than 2 million ebooks last year. Sno-Isle serves more than a half-million registered users in the two counties. To be clear, Sno-Isle can purchase one ebook of a Macmillan title for its entire system, not one for each of its 23 libraries.

Sargent, in his explanation to libraries, claims that lending of ebooks lacks the “friction” of library lending of print books and other materials, meaning readers don’t have to go to the library to check out books, return them or pay fines for late returns. But that lack of “friction” is what makes ebooks so valuable to many users, said Cooley.

“The really unfortunate part is that the people who need access to (ebooks) the most are the ones who will be affected the most; it’s someone who’s home-bound or the visually impaired readers who really rely on ebooks,” because their type can be scaled up, she said.

Each publisher handles the sale of ebooks, print books and other materials differently, but most charge libraries much more than a reader would pay in a bookstore or online. Macmillan is charging libraries $30 for the single ebook copy it will allow, then giving libraries the option to purchase more copies after eight weeks at $60 for each ebook. The retail price for ebooks generally is about $15 or less a copy. And most publishers place time limits on the ebooks, limiting lending to a two-year term or a set number of loans, such as 100.

No other publisher has said it plans to follow Macmillan’s practice. But the possibility one or more might is a concern for Cooley: “That’s the dangerous part. If other publishers view this as a success, they will be making similar moves.”

Jim Hills, spokesman for Sno-Isle Libraries, is more optimistic and pointed to a collaborative effort by libraries and publishers, including Penguin Random House, one of the other “Big 5” publishers. The Panorama Project is collecting and analyzing data to look at issues important to all in the industry, including library lending of ebooks.

Sno-Isle Executive Director Lois Langer Thompson, in a letter to Macmillan’s chief executive, pointed to the findings of a recent Panorama study.

Last year, Panorama organized a project that provided more than 14,700 U.S. libraries with ebook copies of Jennifer McGaha’s “Flat Broke with Two Goats,” made available with no waiting to anyone with a library card for a two-week period. Following the two weeks, Panorama reports, publishers saw an eight-fold increase in ebook sales from March to April that year and a doubling in print sales for the same period.

“Library usage clearly boosts sales, rather than ‘cannibalizing’ them,” Langer Thompson wrote in a letter to Macmillan’s Sargent.

Conversely, both Cooley and Hills said, Macmillan has provided no figures that back its claims of sales lost to ebook lending by libraries.

Few — certainly not newspaper journalists — will argue with the need for authors and publishers to be fairly compensated for their work and their products, but Macmillan’s embargo reads as a shortsighted grab at sales, focused only on short-term profits rather than in encouraging greater readership and equitably providing information to all readers.

Some readers will always prefer turning the pages of an actual book to scrolling an ebook reader, but the access and convenience that ebooks provide many others have to be part of the service that public libraries have long offered.

Expecting thousands of library users to “share” one copy of a book, in any form, is the antithesis of “publishing.”

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