With Macmillan’s controversial embargo on new release library e-books set to begin in just two weeks, PW has learned that the King County (WA) Library System has decided it will no longer purchase embargoed e-book titles from the publisher.
“Despite months of discussion and advocacy, Macmillan continues its position to embargo multiple copies of e-books,” writes King County Library executive director Lisa Rosenblum, in a note sent to fellow library directors (and shared with PW). ”Therefore, effective November 1st, KCLS will no longer purchase e-books from Macmillan. Instead we will divert our e-book funds to those publishers who are willing to sell to us.”
The King County Library System, headquartered in Issaquah, Washington, is one of the nation’s busiest and best library systems, circulating more than 21 million items every year. It has earned a coveted five star rating from Library Journal. And for five years running, King County has been the top digital-circulating public library system in the country, logging more than 4.8 million checkouts of e-books and digital audio in 2018.
In her note, Rosenblum acknowledged differing opinions among public library staff around the country on whether to boycott Macmillan e-books, and said King County’s decision was ultimately driven by two reasons: one “pragmatic” and the other “principled.”
As for the pragmatic side, Rosenblum explained that King County has pledged to readers to limit the wait time for any title to around 3 months. “Not allowing us to purchase multiple copies of an e-book for two months artificially lengthens the queue, triggering more of the same title to be purchased than would have occurred if we had been allowed to buy for the first two months,” she explains. “With an ever-increasing demand to buy a wide variety of digital titles, we do not think this is the best use of public funds.”
Rosenblum says the library will continue to buy print copies of Macmillan new releases (something Macmillan CEO John Sargent suggested libraries do in his memo announcing the new embargo policy) as well as new audiobooks (which are not embargoed), and perhaps even additional copies of e-books the library already owns, as needed. “My mantra has been if it is not embargoed, buy it,” Rosenblum said, when asked for comment by PW. "Our focus is not to punish Macmillan [when the publisher] provides us with timely access to [digital] materials," she explained, "it is to address their embargo of new digital materials."
The "principled" argument, Rosenblum says, is to send a message to other publishers that public libraries cannot accept limits on basic access. To do so, she writes, would “profoundly” change the public library.
The move has not yet been officially announced, but could be as early as next week. And, how the decision not to buy new Macmillan e-books will play out in practice is still under consideration.
"Is it possible that after six months or a year we may go back and buy a title that appeared as a bestseller? Sure," Rosenblum told PW, noting that by then demand for most new releases have faded. "But we are in new territory here, so we have not decided all this." The goal, she suggested, is to make better use of the library's digital dollars, and not to pile up holds and patron frustration, frustration that only claps back on the library.
"We made a business decision," Rosenblum says, "just like they did."
In closing her note to fellow library directors, Rosenblum asked that other libraries consider a similar response. “The more of us who do,” she writes, “the stronger the message to all of our publishers.”