It’s only been about six weeks since I retired from my role as executive director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, and I fear I’ve already become a bore. No, not because I’ve suddenly taken up residence in a rocking chair. Rather, because in the wake of Macmillan’s recently announced library e-book embargo, I’ve been trying to explain the ever-complicated relationship between libraries and publishers to anyone who will listen: in line at the grocery store, at dinner events—really anywhere I can corner people.

Which now extends to this column. The long-planned theme of this month’s column is reference and the vital role libraries play in providing reference services to the public. But even in terms of reference service, the changes to the library e-book market made by a number of major publishers remain in the spotlight. Because these changes threaten to undermine the reference service that is most vital to (and most associated with) public libraries: readers’ advisory—helping pair readers with their next book.

In fact, readers’ advisory is the one public library reference service I believe should be enhanced in the coming years, as more public libraries redouble their literacy and literary endeavors. Already, many libraries report they are shifting money away from costly, underused subscription reference databases to expand their e-book collections. And for a simple reason: because “what should I read next?” is probably the most frequent reference question public librarians get today.


In a recent interview with author and blogger Jason Sanford, Fritz Foy, president and publisher of Macmillan’s Tor and Forge Books, defended Macmillan’s decision to delay sales of new release e-books to libraries by suggesting that the library e-book market was still “uncharted territory.” This is hardly the case. When it comes to trade e-books, libraries and publishers have been locked in this dance for more than eight years—and it’s a dance in which publishers always lead, as they have unilateral power in setting terms and pricing for digital content.

More broadly, libraries and publishers have been licensing all kinds of digital content for decades now. The reference market is one example. In the most recent year, Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) budgeted $566,000 for digital database subscriptions, even though more and more people now turn to their smartphones first when they have a question. But libraries spend this money because, even in this age of instant access, we know that quality still matters. Google my be fine if you’re looking for a demo on how to mount a shelf or make noodles—not so much if you want information about, say, vaccinations. As librarians, we know we need to be where our users are, and many of our users are now online. And librarians also know this is where we especially add value—not just getting users a book or resource, but the right book or resource.

To this day, I remember how, in 2012, on a somewhat disastrous trip I took to the Czech Republic, with a broken wrist and the weather dangerously below freezing every day, I found comfort in my hotel room by downloading Abraham Verghese’s 'Cutting for Stone' from my home library.

It is true, of course, that the trade library e-book market is still fairly new. It took until 2014 to get all of the major publishers to fully participate. But it’s wrong to suggest, as Foy did, that we are all just now dipping our toes in the digital waters. Readers like e-books. And the library e-book market is well established. OverDrive, for example, reports that more than two million digital titles are available in its catalogue, from more than 5,000 publishers. And in her New York Times column last month, “Be a Better Reader in Seven Days,” Tina Jordan made an effort to remind readers that “librarians are a terrific source of reading recommendations,” and that digital readers can often “download books from participating libraries without leaving the house.”

So it’s confounding to me that with more and more digital readers looking to libraries to discover new authors or find their next read, some major publishers are now looking to limit access to e-books. To this day, I remember how, in 2012, on a somewhat disastrous trip I took to the Czech Republic, with a broken wrist and the weather dangerously below freezing every day, I found comfort in my hotel room by downloading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone from my home library. It astounds me that seven years later, in the age of Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify, some publishers are so rattled by the lack of so-called friction in borrowing e-books that they actually want to make it harder for libraries to connect readers with books and authors.

We cannot go backward. We are now firmly in a digital world, where all kinds of content competes for consumer attention and is easier to get than ever, including pirated editions of e-books. What good can really come of making the high-quality, legally licensed e-books harder to access?

Believe me, librarians already hear from digital readers about the friction in the library e-book market, where wait times for an e-book are often months long. And in Macmillan’s case, digital readers will certainly notice when a library can only offer one e-book edition of, for example, Ursula Hegi’s The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls when the print edition is published in early 2020. The question is, who will they hold accountable?

Not Buying It

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that many people don’t understand that in a digital world awash in free and cheap digital content, the library’s digital content is neither free nor cheap. I find that I frequently must explain to people that the library pays handsomely for digital materials—much more per title than it does for print, in fact.

For the current year, CCPL budgeted $1.5 million for e-book licenses and another $750,000 for digital audio—that’s nearly a quarter of our materials budget. And we’re not asking for unlimited, multiuser circulations per copy but for the same one-copy/one-user practice that applies to physical materials. But even though libraries treat digital in the same manner as print, publishers have raised prices and limited our access to the point that digital content now consumes a growing portion of the budget with increasingly less purchasing power.

For some publishers, diminishing our purchasing power seems to be the point. Last month, Information Today reported that Macmillan CEO John Sargent justified the publisher’s new embargo on new-release e-books with two anecdotes. In one, an unnamed author appeared at an unnamed library where “eight attendees had the book from their library, so nobody bought a book directly from the author.” In the other anecdote, a “well-funded library” purchased 900 copies of a book “so that none of their patrons would need to wait more than a week after the publication date to get their hands on a copy.”

I can’t speak to those questionable examples. But here’s my data: as CCPL adult programming manager Bill Kelly reported at BookExpo this year, CCPL sold more than 11,000 copies across 93 events hosted by the library in 2018—sales that were handled by a local independent bookselling partner.

When Jojo Moyes appeared at CCPL last year on her tour for Still Me, she graciously told me that the sales from our library event were the best of the tour. I certainly believe her, because Penguin Random House has already committed her to a CCPL stop for her 2019 book, The Giver of Stars.

And when Macmillan author Louise Penny visited CCPL in 2018, the library drew more than 400 eager readers to her talk and book signing, resulting in more than 700 physical book sales, a record for CCPL’s author events.

Author events aside, the broader data are clear: library users buy books. As librarians, our core business is connecting readers with books, which we do every day, in person and online through readers’ advisory and other reader-related services. Librarians are trained in—and skilled at—book selection. We devote significant public resources into promoting books and authors, for which we charge publishers nothing. When libraries succeed, people read more, the book ecosystem thrives, and authors benefit.

But given recent developments in the e-book market, I fear for the future of these core librarian skills. I fear, for example, that if other publishers one day follow Macmillan’s lead and restrict timely access to e-books, the library brand will be diminished. And I particularly despair that the message Macmillan executives are pushing—that libraries are depressing author payments—could turn some authors against libraries at a time when we all need to band together to create and retain readers.

Checked Out

For sure, the early days of e-books were heady times for libraries. We had the opportunity to be part of a smart and trendy digital culture that was extending and in many ways renewing readership. And we did just that: librarians took our bread and butter skills—readers’ advisory, book club title selections and facilitation, and even author events via services such as Skype—to the online world with great success.

What we learned was that online library users, just like those who visit the physical library, are eager to take chances on authors their local librarians recommend. And, as is often the case in the print world, e-book checkouts generate additional reader recommendations to friends, family, and often one’s social media accounts. And more readers means increased book sales.

But if we don’t correct this worrisome trend of punishing library readers who have chosen to read digitally, I fear we will all lose. If current trends persist, libraries will be forced to focus more of our limited resources on the sure things, and readers—digital readers, especially—will struggle to find library collections that are eclectic and broad. For debut authors, who often to struggle to break out, this is especially going to hurt. If not for the library, for example, I (and many other readers) would surely have missed Xhenet Aliu’s outstanding debut, Brass.

For libraries to continue to effectively support authors, publishers, and readers, we can’t allow them to become second-rate services in the eyes of digital readers. It’s that simple. As smartphones, mobile access, and social media platforms continue to expand the library’s reach, a significant and growing number of digital readers are looking to the library specifically to find their next book.

Contrary to the belief of some publishing executives, frustrating library users is not a recipe for more sales. It is a recipe for fewer readers.

PW columnist Sari Feldman is a former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).