Macmillan Announces Its New Library E-Books Terms

John Sargent of Macmillan has announced the publisher’s new terms on library e-books.

They include the following:

  • “We will make one copy of your [Macmillan authors] ebook available to each library system in perpetuity upon publication. On that single copy we will cut the price in half to $30 (currently first copies are $60 and need renewal after two years or 52 lends).”

  • “Additional copies of that title will not be available for library purchase until 8 weeks after publication.”

  • All other terms remain in place. It is important to note that the 8-week window only applies to ebooks; the library can order as many physical books as they like on publication.”

How very generous to let us buy all the print books we want, since you can’t stop us anyway due to print being covered by copyright and not license.

There is one positive development. Making copies available in two licensing terms (1 copy on perpetual use plus others on a two year/52 circulations metered model) shows that flexibility is possible. ReadersFirst has long advocated for this possibility but has sometimes been told it is technically impossible—a claim we dismiss because we have seen some smaller publishers offer multiple licensing. Having one copy available for perpetual use is a gain over having everything offered only on metered licenses.

As part of their change, Macmillan might have adopted a 50 circulation only model and set prices at what they thought fair. $75 might not have been out-of-line, equaling $1.50 per read. Time-bound licenses make many e-books a gamble for libraries, except in the case of relatively few best sellers. Under such a model, libraries, publisher, and authors know what revenue will be per use. If libraries doesn’t get a lot of circulation on a title, we can at least have time to promote it and hope it will be used in time. Perhaps they could offer three models: 1 copy/1 user perpetual, 25 circulations with no time limit and simultaneous use, and 50 circulations at one user/one copy, no time limit, all priced fairly. Don’t worry, publishers—the options wouldn’t be too complicated for librarians to figure out.

Of course, the small amount of good news in Macmillan’s announcement is overshadowed by their decision to embargo the sales of library digital content for 8 weeks. ReadersFirst is not surprised by the decision to embargo sales. After the Tor experiment, we saw it coming. Macmillan is a business. For all their claims to be supporting authors, they are clearly most concerned about their profits. But we are dismayed, and curious: how is it even legal to embargo sales to libraries? ReadersFirst calls for government investigation of this practice. It disadvantages library users, restricts the flow of valuable information, and undermines an informed citizenry. Some of Macmillan’s claims are preposterous and reflect a woeful lack of understanding. There is no friction in e-lending? Mr. Sargent has clearly never tried to enable a group of librarians, many of them deeply convinced that print is better, to learn digital use well enough to help our patrons, much less heard our patrons’ struggles to get library digital content or the expressions of surprise by many patrons that we have e-books at all. I only wish the process were as easy and seamless as he makes it out to be and that as many patrons know about library digital content as he presumes. Libraries are fortunate to be protected by the right of first sale for printed titles. If we were not, why wouldn’t Macmillan embargo sales of print to libraries, hoping to squeeze every dollar from the consumer market before graciously allowing readers “to lean heavily toward free”?

It is hard to know quite how to respond, other than to ask for government action and perhaps take legal action, without disadvantaging library readers. We could stop buying Macmillan titles altogether and let them see what that does to their sales, but such an action would force readers, many of whom might not have much disposable income, to buy on their own as well as take away content from our libraries. What we clearly need is unified action. We need to organize, take our case to our readers, encouraging them to write for government action and to boycott purchase of Macmillan e-books until such time as libraries also have access to these titles. Macmillan’s actions harm library readers. Ultimately, they harm the very authors Macmillan protests they are helping. Libraries are vital for promoting authors and their works, helping discovery of content that we would argue, yes, promotes sales beyond libraries. It is time for us not just to take a stand, but to ask our millions of readers to take a stand with us.