In a surprise announcement today, Macmillan abandoned its controversial embargo on new release e-books in libraries, effective this week.
“There are times in life when differences should be put aside,” reads a brief memo from Macmillan CEO John Sargent addressed to librarians, authors, illustrators, and agents. “Effective on Friday (or whenever thereafter our wholesalers can effect the change), Macmillan will return to the library e-book pricing model that was in effect on October 31st, 2019. In addition, we will be lowering some e-book prices on a short term basis to help expand libraries collections in these difficult times. Stay safe.”
A Macmillan spokesperson confirmed that the removal of the embargo covers all titles, including new release Tor titles (which were technically still under a "test" embargo on October 31, 2019).
The news comes as libraries across the nation are (or soon will be) closing down their physical locations in an attempt to slow the outbreak of Covid-19.
“This is extraordinarily welcome news in an unprecedented time," said ALA Senior Director for Public Policy & Government Relations ALA Inouye. "Equitable access to digital content is more important than ever as libraries continue to serve their communities amid rapidly changing circumstances. Macmillan’s return to its original lending terms signals a new starting point for all publishers to consider how they can work with libraries to ensure—and expand—access for all readers. ALA looks forward to working with publishers to make that happen.”
While the Covid-19 outbreak clearly played a role in Macmillan's decision to abruptly abandon its embargo on new release library e-books, at press time it is unclear whether the move also coincides with conclusions drawn from other data gathered by Macmillan, or whether Macmillan executives will revisit the policy or explore another major terms revision for library e-books in the future.
At the ALA Midwinter Meeting, in January, Sargent told librarians that Macmillan's embargo was meant to address what he sees as a publishing ecosystem tipping out of balance, and said that Macmillan executives would assess their data and make a decision about the embargo's efficacy some time in March. “It’s been exactly what we predicted—you have this horrific drop in sales because we’re not making [new titles] available,” Sargent reported to librarians at ALA, about the embargo's initial impact on the publisher's bottom line. But, he added Macmillan would stick with with the embargo for "another two or three months" to better assess the policy.
The news also comes less than two weeks after Macmillan executives sought confidential feedback from a select group of librarians on three proposals that would have potentially replaced the embargo with a combination of price hikes and other restrictions.
Michael Blackwell, director of the St. Mary's County (MD) Public Library and an organizer of the ReadersFirst coalition, told PW he was pleased to hear that Macmillan would be dropping the embargo on new release titles, and thanked Sargent for a "gracious" move in ending the stalemate.
"I hope that it can be a good starting point for further negotiations, with good faith on both sides," Blackwell said. "Let's move forward together for the good of readers inside and outside libraries."
PW library columnist Sari Feldman, former executive director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library and a current ALA Policy Fellow, struck a similar note. "During these difficult times, I appreciate Macmillan’s willingness to support readers and public libraries," Feldman said. "This is the time to come together."
Macmillan's controversial two-month embargo on new release e-books in public libraries officially kicked in on November 1, 2019, over the strong objections of the library community, which has consistently rejected the embargo as violating a core value of librarianship: equity of access. The embargo policy came just over a year after Macmillan instituted a four month "test" embargo on new release e-books from its Tor imprint.
In response, the library community waged an ongoing public awareness campaign in the media, which drew the attention of federal and state lawmakers. In addition, a number of libraries have boycotted Macmillan e-books.
Carmi Parker, an ILS administrator for the Whatcom County (WA) Library System who maintains a resource for libraries boycotting Macmillan in the wake of the embargo, said she is looking forward to ending the boycott and bringing new release Macmillan e-books back to library readers.
"The pandemic has highlighted for us how important it is for readers to have access to e-books and e-audiobooks, especially for the young people in Washington State, where all schools are closed through April 24," Parker told PW. "But we recognize too that the issues that prompted the embargo may not be resolved, and we are willing to work with Macmillan and other publishers on ways to make e-lending technology work well for all of us."