The Washington Digital Library Consortium (WDLC), a statewide coalition of some 44 public libraries across Washington state, is organizing a potential six-month boycott of Blackstone Publishing's digital audiobooks. The move follows Blackstone's decision, announced last month, that as of July 1 it would embargo selected new release audiobook titles in libraries for 90 days. The WDLC is urging libraries across the nation to join them in their protest, which is set to begin on August 1.

“As advocates for equitable access for our residents, we protest your decision and, as a result, will boycott Blackstone’s e-audiobooks for six months (August 1, 2019, to January 31, 2020). We ask you to reverse the embargo and to refrain from creating future barriers for libraries,” reads a draft letter making the rounds in the library community. “We take these steps because we truly believe that services without special barriers to libraries are best for both for our patrons and your business.”

In urging other library systems to join the boycott, the WDLC offers a range of resources, including an FAQ for patrons, talking points for stakeholders, and even sample press releases. “We will communicate this boycott," the letter reads, "and the reasons behind it, to library patrons and community stakeholders through press releases, reports via social media and other digital platforms, and in one-on-one conversations with patrons, community leaders, and elected officials.”

Blackstone quietly announced its 90-day window on new audiobook releases last month in a message to library customers delivered through its vendors. But that message did not mention that the 90-day window appears to be tied to an exclusive deal with Amazon's Audible subscription service. In a subsequent message explaining the change to librarians (seen by PW), a rep for Blackstone explained that the publisher "was recently given the opportunity to enter into an exclusive deal" with an unnamed "important strategic partner," and that under terms of the deal, "audio editions of selected Blackstone Publishing titles will be available exclusively in digital format on our strategic partner's platform for 90 days upon initial release."

While there hasn't been an official announcement of this exclusive arrangement, and Blackstone officials have not responded to requests for comment from PW, a review of Audible's catalog now shows current and forthcoming Blackstone Publishing titles feature a banner reading "only from Audible," beginning with titles publishing the week of July 2.

We take these steps because we truly believe that services without special barriers to libraries are best for both for our patrons and your business.

The arrangement does not apply to editions for titles distributed by Blackstone, but only to titles published by Blackstone.

Unlike with Macmillan's controversial "test" embargo on new release e-books from its Tor imprint, Blackstone does not appear to be singling out library sales as a threat to consumer sales. But the potential boycott highlights librarians' growing frustration with the digital market, as well as another growing concern among librarians, particularly in the digital audio market: equity of access. Librarians have been especially concerned that Audible's deep pockets are already enabling the company to produce exclusive content that libraries cannot purchase for their patrons at all, including from popular authors like Michael Lewis and Margaret Atwood.

In their materials, the boycott's organizers recognize the hardship not buying Blackstone titles might cause their users in the short term, and say that the plan is to resume buying Blackstone digital audio titles in February of 2020. "Our intent is not to negatively impact Blackstone’s earnings, but to demonstrate the importance libraries play in helping users discover new materials, which has a profound impact on publisher profits over time, and the impact libraries can have when organized around a common goal for the good of our patrons," the WDLC wrote.

Librarian Carmi Parker, ILS administrator for the Whatcom County Library System, reiterated those points in a conversation with PW. "Our goal for the boycott is to communicate to Blackstone and other publishers that libraries are customers who add value to the publishing ecosystem," Parker said.