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Publishers Are on a Collision Course With Libraries
Posted On August 27, 2019
Macmillan Publishers’ CEO, John Sargent, appeared at the beginning of a Book Buzz session in lower Manhattan to discuss the publisher’s recent decision, shared via letter, to place an embargo on multiple-copy ebook sales to libraries in the case of high-demand titles. Macmillan worked with libraries of all sizes for a year to solve the problem of libraries being so generous that they are killing sales for publishers and authors. The cooperating libraries seemed fine with the policy, so Macmillan executives were surprised at the ferocity with which it was greeted by public libraries in general.

Macmillan Book BuzzSargent provided some examples of the problem. In one, a library hosted a book author. Eight attendees had the book from their library, so nobody bought a book directly from the author, causing an embarrassing day for the host librarian. In another, a well-funded library had purchased 900 copies of a book so that none of their patrons would need to wait more than a week after the publication date to get their hands on a copy. To librarians who are unfamiliar with the details of publishing economics, this sounded like a healthy number of sales. However, the publisher sees each of these sales reduced by the dozens of readers who will take advantage of every one of them. Sargent’s theory is that when patrons find out they will have to wait months to get a copy of a new bestseller, they will just go out and buy the book or the ebook instead. This theory was greeted with skepticism by some in the room.

Sargent also made the claim, backed up by his own research, that by the time a book has been checked out 52 times, it is no longer viable. This was disputed by one Long Island librarian who has worked with titles that have circulated hundreds of times.

The Response From Libraries

ALA’s new president, Wanda Brown, released a strongly worded message urging all libraries to express their displeasure to Macmillan. Brown writes, “Macmillan Publishers’ new model for library ebook lending will make it difficult for libraries to fulfill our central mission: ensuring access to information for all. … Limiting access to new titles for libraries means limiting access for patrons most dependent on libraries.”

In an article for CNN, Jessamyn West sums up the situation very forcefully: “Librarians to publishers: Please take our money. Publishers to librarians: Drop dead.”

Elizabeth Olesh, a Long Island library director, has this to say: “Digital services have become increasingly important to public libraries and the communities they serve. Commuters who don’t have time to visit the library in person, people who are homebound and unable to visit, people with disabilities, over-programmed teenagers who do everything on their phones, and a host of other people rely on the ability of their public library to meet them anyplace life takes them. Contrary to Sargent’s assertion, I believe that the proposed policy will only result in frustrated people who blame their local public libraries for an inability to meet their needs with the tax dollars that are entrusted to them for this very purpose.”

Thoughts From Librarians in Attendance

One librarian said that she often tells patrons who want a particular title in a timely fashion to come to the library and get a paper copy. I tested this using a combination of OverDrive’s Libby app and my library’s online catalog. Searching in topics that are relatively popular (science and psychology), I found 10 interesting books that I would need to reserve. For each title, I went to the library catalog, and I found that four of them were available in my library, and the other six were in a library that is less than 15 minutes away, where I have borrowing privileges as a county resident.

In the case of bestsellers, it is a very different story. For high-demand ebooks, the library must choose between buying many multiple copies or making their patrons wait months for the title. In all cases, there is also substantial reserve activity on the paper copies. Since reserves are free in our county system, one speculates that readers reserve ebooks and paper titles as well as audiobooks to get the first available copy in any format.

Another local public librarian who attended said, “I think Macmillan is damaging their relationships with libraries and that this embargo hurts patrons who don’t have the funds to buy their own e-books.”

Speaking as a retired librarian who was there for the event, I thought Sargent was ignoring a basic fact of human psychology. The librarians who participated in Macmillan’s focus group were invested in the outcome, and they were sure to be more accepting of the result. The ones who found out from seeing his terse letter were understandably unhappy to read that libraries are being perceived as the enemy of publishing and that they are being forced to serve up healthy portions of frustration to their patrons.

Finding a Memo

For a policy that Macmillan claims is perfectly reasonable, it hasn’t exactly put it in lights. I spent time going through the company’s website and did not see a word about this embargo. Many articles have come out recently, but most of them quoted few lines from the publisher. After a day of searching, I finally found a link to the letter from Sargent, provided by Publishers Weekly. Looking at the letter, I could not help but wonder about the discussions the executive had prior to writing it about how libraries are cannibalizing Macmillan’s sales.

Implications for the Future

Every librarian I talked to had the same concern. With mergers and acquisitions rampant, there are very few publishers left in the business. If four other major players decide this is the answer they’ve been seeking, the results will make public libraries extremely unhappy. As a library user for 60 years, and a library employee for 50 of those, I know that librarians are driven to get good information into the hands of their patrons as quickly and easily as possible. This usually was not seen as a bad thing.

Photo by Terry Ballard

Terry Ballard is the author of three books and more than 100 articles about library automation. In addition to several writing awards, Ballard was given the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 and appears in the 2020 edition of Who’s Who in America. Further information can be found at, and he can be reached at

Email Terry Ballard

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