There was no meeting of the minds, but at least there was a meeting. Just days after Macmillan’s controversial two month embargo on new release e-books in public libraries went into effect, CEO John Sargent met with a delegation of state librarians, standing by his claim that new release e-books in libraries are hurting the publisher's revenue.
“Mr. Sargent shared with COSLA Macmillan’s concern that e-book sales are rising in public libraries but declining with consumers,” noted a release from COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Agencies), summarizing the nearly two-and-a-half hour meeting, which took place on November 4, at COSLA's fall memberhship meeting, in Hartford, Ct. “He likened the e-book marketplace to that for major motion pictures in that new releases have the greatest value in their first few weeks and their initial release should allow for the greatest return on both creative and business investment. The availability of e-books through libraries, which may be perceived as being free, is, in Macmillan’s opinion, the major driver in the consumer decline.”
Sargent also repeated another “oft-stated claim,” the release states—that e-book availability through libraries “devalues” the book.
In one of the few data-driven conclusions shared publicly by Macmillan officials over the last 16-plus months, dating back to the start of its Tor experiment, Sargent reportedly told the group of about 10 state librarians that, based on “anecdotal” data, Macmillan believes that “if library users cannot gain access to a new e-book from their library, 8% of those waiting will likely buy the e-book.”
In their release, the state librarians pushed back against Sargent’s arguments.
“Typical e-book loan periods are 2–3 weeks,” noted COSLA president and Hawaii State Librarian Stacey Aldrich. “It is unlikely that a single e-book purchased by a library at 3 or 4 times the cost of a consumer book would circulate more than 2.5 times in the first eight weeks, so the drain on potential buyers is insignificant during the e-books’ most valuable selling period.”
“Libraries pay higher prices for e-books," added Cindy Aden, chair of COSLA’s e-book engagement group and Washington State Librarian. “We question the logic that a publisher would achieve significant revenue from restricting sales to libraries. In our experience, few readers faced with wait times for a new release would choose to purchase the book directly instead of waiting, even if those wait times are significant.”
Further, “contrary to the assumption stated by Mr. Sargent that availability through libraries negatively impacts book sales,” the release goes on, “COSLA believes that library availability builds readership, increases awareness of authors, publishers, booksellers and the entire ecosystem, thereby positively impacting sales.”
Meanwhile, in a separate blog post, Mark Smith, director and librarian for the Texas State Library and Archives, who was in the COSLA meeting with Sargent, said the librarians in the room “did not buy” Sargent’s arguments.
“While it is undeniable that the cost of e-books is untenable, that use is tending to increase, and that library budgets are pushed to the max, we expressed skepticism that a reader who cannot borrow a copy of a library e-book will purchase the item,” Smith writes. “We also doubted the assumption of an inverse correlation between library circulation and publisher revenue. We questioned the data upon which Macmillan’s decisions have been based. And we noted that many libraries are going to discontinue purchasing materials from Macmillan, though Mr. Sargent seems confident that the impact of the boycotts will be offset by greater revenues to authors and publishers.”
As of this writing, dozens of library systems (and counting) are boycotting embargoed Macmillan e-books, including some large, multi-library, state-wide consortia.
In a release this week, Multonomah County Library (Oregon) director Vailey Oehlke captured the thinking behind the boycotts (and offered her patrons a handy explainer as well).
"This is not a decision we take lightly. It means that the library has chosen to side against one specific company, something I would prefer to avoid. Our decision also means that some library patrons won’t be able to access popular authors in their preferred format and I regret that fact," Oehlke wrote, adding that "when you can only buy something from one source and the terms of that purchase become this unreasonable, it’s time to say no more.”
Through the first 10 months of 2019, Multonomah has already purchased nearly $120,000 in e-book access from Macmillan, Oehlke reports.
COSLA says that the two sides did agree “to explore e-book pricing models” and to continue "to try to find ways to understand the perceived problem.” But it seems fair to say that, despite the meeting, librarians and Macmillan officials remain far apart.
“Mr. Sargent appeared eager to describe the problem from his perspective and open to considering alternative models presented by others, acknowledging that the current embargo model may not be the ‘right' model,” COSLA states. “He expressed confidence in [the embargo], however, and determination to find out if it will drive e-book sales to consumers.”
Next up, Sargent in his October 30 open letter said he and Macmillan executives would travel to the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia in January, to hear directly from more librarians.