At the recent ALA Midwinter meeting in Philadelphia, Macmillan CEO John Sargent told librarians that he would come back in March with potential alternatives to the publisher’s controversial library e-book embargo. And this week, Macmillan made good on Sargent’s statement, with an email to a select group of librarians seeking feedback on three proposals that could inform new e-book license terms for public libraries.
In all three proposals, Macmillan’s eight-week embargo on new release e-books to libraries is abandoned. Gone, too, however is the single, half-price perpetual access copy. And, as Sargent suggested would be the case during his talk at ALA Midwinter, all three proposals include price hikes for new titles in the first weeks of publication, with reduced prices later in a title’s publication cycle.
Librarians PW spoke to agreed that the proposals are at least a step toward resolving the most contentious issue in play here: basic access. If Macmillan replaced the current eight-week embargo on new titles with an eight-week, $20 premium, as one proposal does, the basic access issue undeniably goes away. Librarians would still not be happy about the price hike during a book's peak demand, which of course would limit access. But at least the discussion would be a price discussion (which is common in the library e-book market) rather than an explicit infringement on basic access, which librarians maintain is fundamentally unacceptable.
During his talk at ALA Midwinter, Sargent told librarians that Macmillan executives would "gather information" and would at some point "sit down and will try to make some good decisions." And while he did not say the company would abandon the embargo, he did not rule out the possibility either.
“This is a complex ecosystem. What we are trying to do is use the levers we have available to try to figure out an answer,” Sargent told librarians in Philadelphia. “We tried something. It’s clear that the library community did not like what we tried. I still think there’s value in it. But, is it the right thing to do? I don’t know. We might look at having two models. You can buy it from this model, or you can buy it from that model. We are not saying we are going to do this forever. We are trying to find a way to fix an issue that we all have.”
As expected, librarians PW spoke to were at first glance not happy with the price hikes. And they were also critical of how the proposals were rolled out—to a select group of librarians under a request for confidentiality, with some librarians pointing out the similarity to what librarians say was a flawed feedback-gathering process that preceded the announcement of the embargo last year.
“It’s not that I don’t trust Macmillan executives, but I am not trusting this process,” said Michael Blackwell, director of the St. Mary’s County (MD) Public library and an organizer of the ReadersFirst coalition, who posted his feedback on Macmillan's proposals on the ReadersFirst website earlier today. “It looks like what they did last year [before the embargo]. And it’s just a bad way to approach this. It’s especially unreasonable at this point to think the library community as a whole would not want to weigh in on this."
Carmi Parker, ILS administrator for the Whatcom County (WA) Library System, who maintains a resource for libraries boycotting Macmillan in the wake of the embargo, agrees.
“Sharing information publicly is the definition of what libraries do,” Parker told PW. “As tax-payer funded institutions, we have an obligation to be transparent and to share best practices so as to be efficient. This is not to say that we can’t work in small groups that then gather feedback from larger groups and make recommendations to [Macmillan]. But that doesn’t seem to be what [Macmillan] wants.”
Librarians, meanwhile, remain eager to have the Macmillan embargo issue resolved. And Parker told PW it's time for librarians and publishers to find a way to constructively address together what she concedes is a common problem.
“I have been on the advisory committee of the Washington Digital Library Consortium for four years, and I have seen circulation and costs increase between 14% and 20% every year. Most OverDrive libraries across the country report similar numbers, and share our concern that the growth is unsustainable. Fundamentally, I believe that is Macmillan’s concern too,” Parker told PW. “If we could identify together the real source of the problem, we might be able to find solutions together—and it’s not friction. I would love to see publishers start doubling down on what e-lending technology can do for them, instead of tinkering with models.”