Want To Borrow A Library Ebook? Why It Might Become More Challenging (& How Libraries Are Fighting Back)

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Your ability to access ebooks from your local library becomes more challenging today, as Macmillan’s changes go into effect November 1, 2019.

“Allowing a library like the Los Angeles Public Library (which serves 18 million people) the same number of initial e-book copies as a rural Vermont library serving 1,200 people smacks of punishment, not support,” said librarian Jessamyn West in a CNN piece published this summer, following the announcement that Macmillan planned to embargo ebook sales to libraries, fundamentally changing how libraries can access and share new material with patrons.

The newly-announced change follows in the footsteps of other major publishers changing the terms of their ebook agreements with libraries. What makes Macmillan’s changes particularly egregious, though, is that libraries are allowed to purchase no more than one digital edition of a book for the first eight weeks of its publication. The size of the library, as West points out, makes no difference. One ebook is one ebook. After eight weeks, libraries will be able to make additional ebook licenses.

Ebooks for All Petition

Libraries, with the support of the American Library Association, have been highlighting these new restrictions with their patrons, since the publisher’s announcement.

Over 130,000 signatures have been added to the Ebooks For All petition, demanding that Macmillan revisit their new policies and make them more friendly for libraries and their users.

“This embargo would limit libraries’ ability to provide access to information for all. It particularly harms library patrons with disabilities or learning issues. One of the great things about eBooks is that they can become large-print books with only a few clicks, and most eBook readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges. Because portable devices are light and easy to hold, eBooks are easier to use for some people who have physical disabilities,” reads the petition.

Ebook Costs To Libraries Is Substantial

Emphasizing the direct impact this embargo has on users, the petition highlights why this matters to the average reader and why their voice matters. “Here’s the truth: Limiting access to new titles for libraries means limiting access for readers like you.”

What many library patrons might not know, though, is that in addition to the restrictions publishers put on ebook purchases, libraries pay a premium for the purchase of ebooks for their collections. Jennifer Rothschild, Collection Engagement Librarian for Arlington Public Library (Virginia), has been highlighting these price tag realities on Twitter for the last year. Upon the announcement of Macmillan’s new terms, she made it clear that the reality isn’t just about access; it’s also about cost, both to libraries and the tax-paying patrons they serve.

In the above example, Rothschild quotes the suggested retail price of Jeffrey Archer’s new title Nothing Ventured ($28.99), compared with the price of purchasing the book on Amazon in print ($23.19). The Kindle edition of the same book can be purchased for $14.99, while libraries—who often receive discounts for print purchases due to a variety of factors, including numbers of sales—can purchase the print copy for $15.71.

The ebook of that same title for libraries, though, is a whopping $60. That $60 isn’t for the book’s lifetime, either. It must be repurchased when the book has been in the collection for 24 months or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first.

One of the concessions in the Macmillan agreement is that the initial copy of a new ebook—the one permitted per library system in the first eight weeks of publication—will come at half the cost. This means that the initial copy of Archer’s ebook for libraries will be $30, rather than $60. Likewise, this single copy will be made available in perpetuity and not fall under the 24 month/52 checkout limitations.

But once the embargo ends, prices and restrictions for additional copies of the ebook will return to normal—$60, with the limitations.

In other words, a single ebook edition of Archer’s title which published September 3, 2019 would be made available; it won’t matter if the library is as large as Los Angeles Public or a small rural library. This single ebook would be the only available edition until the last week of October, when libraries would be granted permission to purchase additional copies at the higher price and stricter borrowing limitations.

For patrons, this means that ebook wait lists for popular Macmillan titles would grow exponentially and it might not be unfathomable to be waiting months, if not a year or longer, for the ebook hold. Even when the embargo concludes and more editions can be purchased, libraries will need to spend more money for limited access.

Digital material is managed in a number of different ways across U.S. libraries. Many libraries might team up to pool limited funds to make these purchases. Some places, like Wisconsin, purchase their digital material and share them state-wide. As explained in a piece about the impact of this ebook embargo on Madison (WI) Public Library users, “As of Nov. 1, all of the public library users statewide who wish to check out a Macmillan title would be limited to sharing one digital copy.  The bestselling novel ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens currently has over 3,000 holds on 175 digital copies in the Wisconsin Digital Library. If that were a Macmillan Publishing release, those 3,000 readers would be waiting for just one copy statewide.”

Macmillan Boycotts at Libraries

This change in terms for Macmillan ebooks has seen pushback from libraries, as noted above, but some libraries are taking it a step further.

King County Library System (KCLS), located in the greater Seattle region and one of the largest library systems in the USA, is boycotting Macmillan ebooks.

Publishers Weekly shared highlights of a letter from KCLS executive director Lisa Rosemblum sent to fellow library directors explaining the decision.

“Despite months of discussion and advocacy, Macmillan continues its position to embargo multiple copies of e-books. 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,” she wrote. “We made a business decision, just like they did.”

The KCLS ebook purchase ban will not impact print books or audiobooks from Macmillan, as those items do not come with an embargo attached to them. John Sargent, Macmillan CEO, had suggested alternative formats in his initial announcement of the company’s policy change. KCLS will also continue to purchase ebooks that aren’t under the embargo.

In New Jersey, the Libraries of Middlesex Automation Consortium, which serves as administrative agent for eLibraryNJ, a shared collection of ebook and e-audio materials for 70 libraries, mostly public, in the central part of the state, voted to stop purchasing Macmillan ebooks on November 1. This decision will impact only the collectively purchased titles; member libraries who purchase supplemental titles on their own might choose to include Macmillan titles.

“[O]ur decision is based on trying to make sure our patrons have the best digital reading experience we can give them. For us that means providing digital content we can get to our patrons in a reasonable amount of time. One copy of a title during an 8 week embargo period cannot possibly meet our patrons’ needs. So we choose to spend our scarce funds elsewhere. While we fundamentally disagree with Macmillan’s stated reason for this policy, and think industry data does not support it, we recognize that publishers can price their products as they wish. We have a limited amount of funds to spend on collections and have an obligation to spend those funds wisely. We don’t think purchasing eBooks from Macmillan under their new policy is consistent with that obligation,” said Eileen Palmer, an administrator with eLibraryNJ.

KCLS and the Central New Jersey Consortium join other libraries in the push toward standing up for patron access in the face of publisher restrictions of materials in libraries. The Washington Digital Library Consortium (Washington) began to boycott Blackstone Audiobooks for their e-audiobook lending changes for six months. Blackstone began to embargo their e-audiobook sales to libraries, making them unavailable for 90 days post-publication.

“We are concerned about the pattern we see, with multiple publishers creating barriers for libraries and limiting access for library patrons. If publishers are permitted to continue creating these barriers unchecked, we believe more barriers will occur. We wish to use our purchasing power to communicate to Blackstone and other publishers that libraries are customers who add value to the publishing ecosystem. Moreover, we have an ethical obligation to maximize patron access to materials and get the best possible value for our taxpayer dollars. Working with partners who are willing to impede patron access puts those obligations at risk,” the Washington Digital Library Consortium boycott memo says.

Not every librarian agrees with boycotting as a means of pushing back against digital lending terms from publishers. Some believe that choosing to boycott runs counter to the mission of libraries and their desire to make information access available to all.

Wendy Crutcher, quoted above, continued her thread by noting that librarians can simply choose not to highlight or promote Macmillan titles in house and on social media, subverting the challenge of not having the material available at all.

“Nominating your books for . Yeah, not gonna do that. Featuring your books in our online and physical book displays? Yeah, no. Newsflash, librarians are a PR department you don’t pay and continual crap on so…suddenly doing a job for you FOR FREE is something I’m not wild about doing. And I can handsell books to customers from other publishers who don’t have their heads up their behinds just as easily. Libraries buy a ton and we currently cannot promote every single thing we buy. We got options dude. We need to hit Macmillan right in the discoverability giblets,” she said.

The American Library Association Goes Before the Committee on the Judiciary Before the House

“In every community across the country, libraries work to advance their missions to inspire education, creativity, and innovation. While print books remain a staple, today’s libraries are modernizing their services to offer the latest digital technologies to meet the needs of 21st century students, jobseekers, and entrepreneurs,” reads the beginning of the report by the American Library Association (ALA) written in response to congressional inquiry about competition and the digital marketplace.

The report highlights what the ALA calls unfair practices on behalf of publishers like Macmillan when it comes to pricing and access. Libraries, which have spent over $40 billion on digital content over the last ten years, are seeing the practices harm their bottom lines, which restricts the ability for people to get the information they desire.

“However, unfair behavior by digital market actors – and the outdated public policies that have enabled them – is doing concrete harm to libraries as consumers in digital markets. Libraries are prepared to pay a fair price for fair services […] But abuse of the market position by dominant actors in digital markets is impeding essential library activities that are necessary to ensure that all Americans have access to information, both today and for posterity. If these abuses go unchecked, America’s competitiveness and our cultural heritage as a nation are at risk,” it reads.

ALA believes publishers are toeing the line of anti-competitive behaviors, and the report digs into each of their concerns. Among them include the inability to purchase digital materials from Amazon for their collections—once simply a platform and now a publisher in its own right; delayed release schedules like those implemented by Macmillan; and increased prices for material acquisition.

Other challenges cited showcase how not updating laws and regulations has led to access restriction for libraries. Netflix shows that stream, for example, can’t be purchased in a format for libraries to use, hindering the ability for their use to patrons. The report also details how textbooks and access to research information has challenged academic libraries.

Alan Inouye, ALA senior director of public policy and government relations, said that the organization will be actively pursuing the opportunity to see changes to the current system.

“Beginning next week, ALA and our members in targeted congressional districts will engage legislators on the substance of our report. When librarians and community leaders tell Antitrust Subcommittee members how unfair digital market practices impact their constituents, Congress will listen. ALA will continue to pursue legislative, advocacy, and legal options to ensure everyone in our communities has access to the creative content for which libraries already pay a very high price. We will not stand down,” said Inouye in a statement.

For the ALA, this is a bigger issue than Macmillan. It’s about digital access more broadly. But Macmillan’s new policies made the report and work toward change more imperative.

Libraries and Publishers at Impasse

Sargent’s letter about ebook lending changes at Macmillan comes as he works to protect the intellectual and financial interests of the authors publishing in his company. The Author’s Guild, the oldest and largest professional organization for working writers, agrees with Sargent’s decision, though their initial statement was clarified for milder language and agreement.

“The central question it seems that we all should be asking is ‘how can we ensure that authors can afford to keep writing?’ Compared to the author-income crisis at hand, we did not think that having to wait eight weeks for a library ebook was an unreasonable compromise, especially when print copies are available for borrowing. But we hear those who disagree, and understand that there are people who might need immediate ebook access and that windowing might create a backlog in the queues,” their updated statement says.

American public libraries aren’t in the business of making a buck. Rather, they’re charged as stewards of public funds, meaning they’re entrusted to spend taxpayer money to offer as wide an array of information and material as possible in as thoughtful a manner possible. While ebook lending in libraries has increased in the last half decade, in part due to higher rates of ebook reader ownership and more seamless means of borrowing digital material, it’s hard to imagine that embargoes like the one Macmillan is putting in place will help authors who aren’t already bestsellers.

What’s more, these changes in lending policies lead to challenges for patrons, who simply want to read a book. Libraries, in the interest of transparency, may find themselves explaining the changes while also seeing patron trust in what they do waning—not atypical when information is confusing, inconsistent, and leads to being unable to do what it is an individual wants to do. In this case, borrow an ebook and being confronted with an enormous holds queue.

But for libraries, whether or not they’re boycotting Macmillan based on their new policies, this provides a unique opportunity for highlighting their commitment to their patrons, both fiscally and through how they’re able to market what materials they have available for use.

“Libraries and librarians have always played a role in bringing quality literature to the attention of the public. Midlist and back list eBook titles have sometimes been difficult to afford while we were trying to meet the demand for best sellers. Now we will be able to divert some funds to bringing authors and titles that may be new to our eBook readers to their attention,” said Palmer.

The Ebooks For All petition is still active, and those who want to ensure equity in access and pricing are urged to add their name, as well as reach out to their representatives with information about why competition in the digital market, as well as stricter regulation, is imperative.

Sargent composed a second letter, addressing librarians’ concerns on October 30, but none of his company’s new policies will be changing.

Public Libraries Boycotting Macmillan

This is an incomplete list of libraries and systems boycotting Macmillan materials. Each library and system’s boycott differs in how much material is being boycotted, whether it’s just new ebooks or all of their books.

  • King County Library System (WA)
  • Libraries of Middlesex Automation Consortium (NJ)
  • Arkansas Digital Library Consortium (AR)
  • Reading Public Library (PA)
  • Nashville Public Library (TN)

Keep abreast of updates on Macmillan boycotts, as well as other challenges to library user access to ebooks and e-audiobooks at ReadersFirst.