Publisher’s decision to limit e-book access is bad news for library patrons

A recent decision by a book publisher to limit public libraries’ access to e-books should be of concern not only to library patrons in King County, but to readers and authors everywhere.

Macmillan Publishers, one of five major publishers in the United States, recently announced a new lending model that limits public libraries to only one copy of newly-released titles in digital formats, followed by an eight-week embargo on purchasing additional copies. For KCLS, a library system with 50 libraries serving more than one million residents, the announcement is especially troubling.

Macmillan’s decision is based on the premise that public libraries undercut publishers’ profits by providing free access to e-books. This is no different than limiting the number of print books a library can purchase because they offer them free to the public.

Library systems pay double the print rate for most e-books, an amount that is more than fair to the publisher’s bottom line. KCLS has spent more than $2.3 million on e-books alone since last July. In fact, KCLS was one of the first library systems to launch the e-book platform and worked extensively with publishers to promote digital formats. Now that demand for electronic books is outpacing print, publishers are changing the rules.

An embargo hits tech-savvy King County patrons particularly hard. KCLS has been the top digital-circulating library in the U.S. for the last five years and third worldwide. According to Rakuten OverDrive, KCLS patrons downloaded nearly five million e-books and audio books last year.

To understand the impact of Macmillan’s decision, it must be put in perspective. Libraries maintain “purchase to holds” ratios to minimize wait times for popular titles. As a large library system, KCLS maintains a 5:1 ratio. That means for every five holds placed on a title, KCLS purchases one copy to ensure a maximum wait time of three months.

To illustrate, after months on KCLS’ top five e-books list, the bestseller, “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens still has 1,848 holds on 372 copies. “Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover” has 1,089 holds on 358 copies. If KCLS were limited to only one digital copy of each of these high-demand titles and then had to wait eight weeks before being able to purchase more, the impact would be dramatic. Patrons could conceivably wait years rather than months for their e-book.

Other top publishers have re-evaluated their library lending models without imposing an embargo. Hachette Book Group and Penguin Random House, for example, have eliminated long-standing “perpetual access” for libraries in favor of a two-year access model. This equates to electronic expiration dates on titles that require libraries to buy more copies, but does not limit them to a single copy initially.

On a broader level, what’s at stake is the issue of digital equity and access.

KCLS, like all public libraries, views its central mission as providing free and equal access to information. If libraries are shut out of performing this essential role in the digital realm, a unified public response is needed.

The American Library Association has denounced Macmillan’s decision and asks that people express their concerns to: press.inquiries@macmillan.com or ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office at alawash.@alawash.org.

Lisa Rosenblum is director of the King County Library System.

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