In a few weeks, I’ll be retired, and I had every intention of wrapping up my 42-year career in public libraries by writing a sentimental column this month. But, alas, instead of marking the end of four decades in librarianship with a warm and fuzzy feeling, I find myself red-hot over the latest moves by publishers to limit access to digital content in public libraries.
Until now, I’ve been inclined to give publishers the benefit of the doubt. As co-chair of the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group from 2011 to 2014, back when libraries were working to get basic access to e-books, I came to recognize that some of the restrictions publishers place on libraries in the digital space are business decisions that, to some degree, reflect an economic reality the library community must learn to accept. But recent changes imposed by some of the major publishers have gone too far.
A year ago, Macmillan placed a four-month embargo on new-release titles from its Tor imprint—part of what the publisher characterized as a “test.” In a series of recent meetings, Macmillan representatives told librarians that the test has validated its belief that library e-book lending depresses consumer e-book sales and author payouts. Speculation is that Macmillan will soon announce new digital terms and pricing for libraries that will include some version of an embargo on new-release titles across more of Macmillan’s imprints.
Despite holding meetings with librarians (including me), as well as with representatives from the American Library Association, it does not appear that Macmillan has listened to our concerns. Embargoing new releases in libraries is unacceptable. Windowing digital content will place libraries at a true disadvantage at a time when they are already under increasing pressure to serve digital readers and audiobook listeners. Further, libraries are already limited in the digital space. We often pay three to five times the consumer price for two-year access to e-books: terms that dramatically limit the number of copies we can afford to purchase, resulting in long wait times for readers—often many months for the hottest, buzziest titles. Adding an additional embargo period will only extend these already-long wait times for digital readers.
Part of the problem here is that public libraries have little leverage with which to negotiate digital pricing and terms with publishers and vendors. With physical materials, our ability to buy and lend copies and to create rich collections for our communities is protected by law. In the digital world, however, we can’t license content without agreeing to the terms the publishers set. Yet, neither can we walk away from the digital formats our public is asking for just because the terms and prices are too onerous. That would be counter to our values and mission. And it would signal to our supporters and funders that the library can’t meet the community’s needs. With so much digital content readily available to consumers these days through a variety of commercial platforms, the library story of embargoes, exclusive author contracts with Amazon, and high digital pricing decimating our collection budgets is tough enough to explain to our boards, let alone to our public. This is part of the story, too.
In another recent setback, Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster became the first of the Big Five publishers to meter digital audio purchases in libraries. Like e-books, digital audio licenses from these two publishers will now expire after 24 months. The change comes despite digital audio consumer sales showing strong double-digit sales growth for each of the last six years, with no sign of slowing down. Any objective, reasonable read on the data would suggest that libraries have played a positive role in the growth of the digital audio market, with their collection dollars and in terms of marketing and exposing the format to new consumers.
Both Hachette and S&S said the change in its audio terms was driven by a simple desire to align their e-book and digital audio policies. But you have to wonder what is really driving this change. Meanwhile, as the format becomes more popular, Amazon is growing more aggressive in its tactics. Its Audible subscription service is pursuing exclusive contracts that deny libraries access to some of the most highly desirable digital audio content, including from major authors such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Lewis. And adding another unwelcome twist to the digital audio story, following an exclusive deal with an unnamed “important strategic partner,” Blackstone Publishing last month imposed a 90-day embargo on new-release audio titles in libraries.
We appreciate that four of the Big Five publishers—Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—have thus far committed to a no-embargo policy for new-release titles. But the fact remains: high prices and limited term licenses are severely impacting our ability to build collections and serve our communities. Making it all worse, managing these increasingly complex digital licenses requires significant additional expense and time from library staff—resources that could be spent serving users or buying more books from more authors.
Following its formation in 2011, the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group worked with publishers and vendors to open a dialogue about digital content in libraries. By the end of 2014, all of the Big Five publishers were in the library e-book market. And when the working group’s six-year charter expired in 2017, we had a growing, relatively stable (albeit expensive and complex) library e-book market.
Recent developments, however, suggest that we are facing a grim future for digital content in libraries. Where will we librarians and library supporters draw the line? When will we say that access terms and pricing have become too oppressive?
At last month’s ALA Annual Conference, the ALA Council passed a resolution urging ALA to form another working group on digital content, as well as to start a public outreach campaign about the challenges we face in the digital realm. The resolution also urged ALA to approach Congress. I am skeptical that another working group will be effective. By now, we know well the issues and the forces at play. And there is plenty of data to show that working closely with libraries in fact makes good business sense for publishers.
But I do believe it is time for library supporters to mount a vigorous campaign to communicate widely the challenges libraries face in the digital content market. Last month, the Association of American Publishers filed comments urging the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize the business practices of the tech industry. Perhaps libraries should take this opportunity to share our experiences in the digital market with government officials as well. Like the AAP and its members, we recognize that Amazon has been a particularly destabilizing force.
We have reached a tipping point. Access to digital content in libraries is more than a financial issue; it is an equity issue. Ask yourself this: if libraries are effectively shut out of performing their traditional roles in the digital realm, do you trust Amazon to be the public’s open and fair discovery engine?
To those who are truly stakeholders and champions of libraries, I ask you to weigh in and stand with us. And I challenge all librarians and library supporters to think about what our next steps will be.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).