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Embargoing Libraries: A Losing Proposition for All
Posted On January 21, 2020
The following is an op-ed by Alan Inouye, ALA’s senior director of public policy and government relations. It has been lightly edited to conform to NewsBreaks’ style.

A tsunami hit the publisher-library ecosystem in the last half of 2019. Macmillan Publishers decided that a library system (whether in a town of a few hundred people or the Los Angeles Public Library) may purchase only one copy of a new ebook until the ninth week after release. Libraries and their communities vigorously opposed this new policy through an unprecedented wave of letters to the company, op-eds, articles, TV news appearances, radio interviews, panel sessions, and a national petition. 

The Macmillan policy is not the first embargo of library ebook lending. Most notably, libraries are embargoed from purchasing ebooks that Amazon publishes—including titles from high-profile authors such as Mindy Kaling or Dean Koontz. But the Macmillan embargo has become a tipping point for overall ebook pricing and other terms already seen by librarians as egregious. Macmillan CEO John Sargent speculates that delaying sales to libraries will be more profitable for publishers. The truth is, it’s a losing proposition for everyone in the reading ecosystem. 

Communities lose when ebook sales to libraries are denied or delayed. When libraries receive second-class treatment, so do people who cannot otherwise afford to obtain ebooks, especially people with low or fixed income and, disproportionately, people of color. People with print disabilities or just weakening eyesight derive major benefits from ebooks over print books because digital text size can be changed easily. Similarly, rural residents or anyone else with transportation or mobility challenges lose out from the ready access that ebooks afford. 

Embargoes devalue libraries. Community members accustomed to top-notch service wonder why libraries don’t offer materials when consumers can purchase them. Treating libraries, historically prized and respected community institutions, worse than the general public undermines the reputation of libraries and the value of their diverse users.

Publishers and authors lose too. Libraries provide free marketing for publishers—which will vanish for titles that libraries cannot lend. Libraries host displays of books, hold author talks, manage book clubs, sponsor reading programs, and highlight books and authors in their newsletters, social media, and websites. Libraries promote reading and literacy broadly—few other organizations fulfill this role or have the same reach. Libraries cultivate the seed for the next generation of book buyers. 

This marketing has considerable value. For example, Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio estimated the value of its marketing of a 2019 release by Juliet Grames to be $13,367, an amount worth 955 consumer ebook purchases at the going rate of $13.99. Now multiply this for libraries across the country and then across titles. Publishers jeopardize this valuable marketing with embargoes and other pernicious policies. 

Overall publisher revenue also could decrease. Very few of the prevented ebook loans (now embargoed) will result in consumer purchases. But what is certain is a marked decline resulting from the ebooks that libraries would have otherwise purchased (at four to five times the consumer price)—obviously during the 8-week embargo period, but judging by the outcry thus far, libraries may reduce such purchases post-embargo.

Finally, another sure loss is to industry reputation. The Macmillan embargo policy has been widely received as anti-library and anti-community. Certainly, the embargo policy is a large stain on the publishing industry’s commitment to corporate social responsibility. Though the embargo policy is one company’s policy, it reflects poorly on the industry as a whole.

Macmillan’s embargo policy must not become a trend. The current delay of 8 weeks can easily extend to 12 weeks and spread to other publishers—even if there is no proof to show its value. We don’t need this kind of “experimentation” to discourage book readership. 

Access to and use of all published works—regardless of format—must equitably balance the rights and privileges of readers, authors, and publishers. Embargoing digital content for libraries serves no one. As we navigate the transition from print to digital in a complex ecosystem and face declining reading levels overall, publishers and libraries can work together to find answers. 

So, Macmillan: Suspend the embargo, and let’s have substantive exploration and serious discussion.

Hallie Rich, communications and external relations director at Cuyahoga County Public Library, provided the statistics.

Alan Inouye is ALA’s senior director of public policy and government relations.

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