from the wtf-is-wrong-with-macmillan? dept
We’ve joked in the past that, given the insane state of copyright maximalism, if libraries were invented today, it’s quite clear that book publishers would insist they were dens of piracy and had to be stopped at all costs. It is, at best, the luck of history that libraries got “grandfathered” in before copyright system maximalists went completely out of their minds. But, in fact, copyright holders still do appear to hate libraries and wish they’d go away. Case in point: publishing giant Macmillan, which has decided that libraries shouldn’t be lending ebooks any more. Back in July it announced a new plan, starting November 1st, to “embargo” ebooks offered to libraries.
If you’re not already aware, most libraries offer ebook lending — which gives borrowers temporary access to an ebook, just like borrowing a hard copy library book. I use this all the time to borrow ebooks from my local library (which has also resulted in my buying permanent copies of many of those books). However, Macmillan has decided to crack down on the practice. In a letter to authors defending this move, Macmillan claimed that library ebook lending was cutting into its bottom line:
One thing is abundantly clear. The growth in ebook lends through libraries has been
remarkable. For Macmillan, 45% of the ebook reads in the US are now being borrowed for free
from libraries. And that number is still growing rapidly. The average revenue we get from those
library reads (after the wholesaler share) is well under two dollars and dropping, a small fraction
of the revenue we share with you on a retail read.
And so, Macmillan has decided to fuck over libraries and library patrons:
The terms: We will make one copy of your ebook available to each library system in perpetuity
upon publication. On that single copy we will cut the price in half to $30 (currently first copies
are $60 and need renewal after two years or 52 lends). This change reflects the library request
for lower prices and perpetual access. Additional copies of that title will not be available for library purchase until 8 weeks after publication. All other terms remain in place. It is important to
note that the 8-week window only applies to ebooks; the library can order as many physical
books as they like on publication. It is a window for only a single format.
The key thing here is only allowing a single ebook to be purchased by a library for that 8-week period, meaning that it will be nearly impossible for most patrons to borrow those books (assuming a standard library lend is 2 weeks, renewable for another 2 weeks, this means only 2 to 4 patrons are likely to be able to borrow those books when first released).
In September, librarians around the US launched a campaign — ebooksforall.org urging Macmillan to rethink this awful plan:
This embargo limits libraries? ability to provide access to information for all. It particularly harms library patrons with disabilities or learning issues. One of the great things about eBooks is that they can become large-print books with only a few clicks, and most eBook readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges. Because portable devices are light and easy to hold, eBooks are easier to use for some people who have physical disabilities.
Macmillan is the only major publisher restricting public libraries? ability to purchase and lend digital content to their communities. Before the embargo took effect, we collected 160,000 signatures from readers who urged Macmillan not to go through with their plan. And we delivered these signatures in person to CEO John Sargent. Sadly, he did not listen.
Indeed, he absolutely did not listen. Instead, he went forward with the plan and is defending the embargo by comparing it to “movie windows” — the almost universally hated practice of Hollywood to release movies first in theaters before bringing them to home video and other platforms:
?He likened the e-book marketplace to that for major motion pictures in that new releases have the greatest value in their first few weeks and their initial release should allow for the greatest return on both creative and business investment. The availability of e-books through libraries, which may be perceived as being free, is, in Macmillan?s opinion, the major driver in the consumer decline.?
Sargent also repeated another ?oft-stated claim,? the release states?that e-book availability through libraries ?devalues? the book.
This is nonsense on multiple levels. First, Hollywood has been learning just how damaging windows are over the past few decades, because they more frequently create incentives for piracy and generally piss people off. It’s why the windows have continued to shrink (drastically), and more and more films are moving to so-called “day and date” releases with no windows at all. In other words, he’s moving in the opposite direction of the very industry he claims he’s modeling his new plan on.
Second, the “devalues” claim is just bullshit. It’s one that all copyright maximalists like to throw out there when complaining about “free” or cheap competition and it’s hogwash. It’s about market segmentation, and limiting access to books via libraries is a giant fuck you to the reading public. Besides, as the libraries point out, given that ebooks are only loaned out 3 to 4 times over those 8 weeks, and libraries would need to pay $60 per later copy, Sargent’s math makes no sense at all.
?Typical e-book loan periods are 2?3 weeks,? noted COSLA president and Hawaii State Librarian Stacey Aldrich. ?It is unlikely that a single e-book purchased by a library at 3 or 4 times the cost of a consumer book would circulate more than 2.5 times in the first eight weeks, so the drain on potential buyers is insignificant during the e-books? most valuable selling period.?
?Libraries pay higher prices for e-books,” added Cindy Aden, chair of COSLA?s e-book engagement group and Washington State Librarian. ?We question the logic that a publisher would achieve significant revenue from restricting sales to libraries. In our experience, few readers faced with wait times for a new release would choose to purchase the book directly instead of waiting, even if those wait times are significant.?
Further, ?contrary to the assumption stated by Mr. Sargent that availability through libraries negatively impacts book sales,? the release goes on, ?COSLA believes that library availability builds readership, increases awareness of authors, publishers, booksellers and the entire ecosystem, thereby positively impacting sales.?
Librarians are (quite understandably) furious about all of this. Librarian Wendy Crutcher has an excellent post directed at Macmillan called “Libraries are Not the Enemy” that is well worth reading in its entirety. Here’s a snippet:
Libraries aren?t the competition nor are we unreasonable. We get that publishers need to turn a profit and we want authors to make a living. Libraries aren?t the problem; the problem is competition from other distractions and the now-set reader expectations that eBooks shouldn?t cost more than $2.99.
Libraries didn?t do that. We?re literally creating demand for the product. One of our cornerstone principles is to create lifelong, enthusiastic readers and learners. Plus there?s actual data that library users are also book buyers.
The worst part about all of this is that this policy is no good for anyone, well, other than Amazon who will benefit mightily by driving a larger wedge between publishers and libraries. Any policy that limits access to new books hurts readers, it hurts authors, and it hurts the publisher.
Oh, sure, some readers will get frustrated and simply buy the book, assuming they have the means to do that. However, the more likely outcome is that readers will get frustrated, simply move on, and forget about the book entirely to the point of never reading it. Which is not what we want at all.
The reality seems to be that, as the joke goes, copyright maximalists just see libraries as dens of piracy that need to be stopped. We’ve seen this before. Publishers have massively jacked up the prices of lendable ebooks (note the $60 price above), they’ve built in “expiring” licenses so that those expensive purchases can only be loaned out a limited number of times. And now they’re limiting how many licenses can be purchased by a single library.
This is an attack on libraries for no good reason, other than publishers hating the concept of “free” access to books.
Filed Under: competition, copyright, ebooks, lending, libraries