Just days before Macmillan’s controversial embargo on new release e-books in public libraries is set to go into effect, Macmillan CEO John Sargent is speaking out to librarians. In an open letter to librarians published this week, Sargent struck a somewhat conciliatory note, but his message remains unchanged: library e-books pose a problem.
“We believe the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed e-books decreases the perceived economic value of a book,” Sargent explains in the letter. “I know that you pay us for these e-books, but to the reader, they are free.” That is what is driving the embargo, Sargent suggests—the fear that readers are being trained to get e-books "instantly and seamlessly” from a library, "causing book-buying customers to change habits," and creating "a problem across the publishing ecosystem (authors, illustrators, agents, publishers, libraries, retailers, and readers)."
In his letter, Sargent falls back on the same concerns he’s voiced since the earliest days of the e-book market, years before Macmillan licensed e-books to libraries: the lack of so-called “friction” for library e-books. "In the pre-digital world, reading for free from libraries was part of the business model," Sargent writes. "To borrow a book in those days required transportation, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forgot to get them back on time. In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market."
And though he apologizes for not reaching out earlier to librarians about the change in terms (the only official previous communication from Sargent on the matter went to Macmillan authors and agents) Sargent insists that the embargo policy was nevertheless "well considered and deeply discussed" with over 35 library systems, various library e-book vendors, and with the ALA.
“We are not trying to hurt libraries; we are trying to balance the needs of the system in a new and complex world,” Sargent writes. “We believe windowing for eight weeks is the best way to do that. I am the first to admit we may be wrong. But we need to try to address this issue. We look forward to talking with many of you in the weeks and months ahead as we all begin to understand the effects of our new policy."
In the letter, Sargent says he and other Macmillan executives will be at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, set for Philadelphia, in January, 2020.
Sargent's letter comes amid a strong backlash from librarians, which began when the publisher first "tested" its embargo on new release e-books from its Tor imprint, in July of 2018.
Under the publisher's new terms of sales, which go into effect November 1 and apply to all imprints and authors, public libraries will now be limited to a single perpetual access copy of new release Macmillan e-books for the first eight weeks after a book's publication. After eight weeks, libraries can then license multiple copies under Macmillan's existing terms, two years or 52 lends (whichever comes first) with new releases priced around $60.
Meanwhile, a delegation of librarians and ALA officials were planning to meet at Macmillan's offices this morning to deliver a petition, signed by more than 160,000 library supporters, urging Macmillan to reverse its embargo. The backlash from librarians has also caught the attention of federal lawmakers, who last month asked the ALA to give information for a House antitrust subcommittee investigation looking at competition in the digital market.
Alan Inouye, ALA's senior director for Public Policy & Government Relations, questioned Sargent's decision to finally weigh in and open discussions after months of ignoring librarians' input, and with the embargo about to go into effect. In New York today to meet today with Macmillan executives, Inouye reiterated to PW that, counter to some of the claims in Sargent's letter, ALA and library leaders "have consistently opposed any effort to delay or deny library access to digital content,” and pointed out that Macmillan is the only Big Five publisher that sees the need to restrict basic access to library e-books.
"We hope to take Mr. Sargent at his word that he is open to admitting error," Inouye says, "and to finding a fair and equitable path forward.”