Major Public Library System Will Boycott Macmillan E-books

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From Publishers Weekly:

With Macmillan’s controversial embargo on new release library e-books set to begin in just two weeks, PW has learned that the King County (WA) Library System has decided it will no longer purchase embargoed e-book titles from the publisher.

“Despite months of discussion and advocacy, Macmillan continues its position to embargo multiple copies of e-books,” writes King County Library executive director Lisa Rosenblum, in a note sent to fellow library directors (and shared with PW). ”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.”

The King County Library System, headquartered in Issaquah, Washington, is one of the nation’s busiest and best library systems, circulating more than 21 million items every year. It has earned a coveted five star rating from Library Journal. And for five years running, King County has been the top digital-circulating public library system in the country, logging more than 4.8 million checkouts of e-books and digital audio in 2018.

In her note, Rosenblum acknowledged differing opinions among public library staff around the country on whether to boycott Macmillan e-books, and said King County’s decision was ultimately driven by two reasons: one “pragmatic” and the other “principled.”

As for the pragmatic side, Rosenblum explained that King County has pledged to readers to limit the wait time for any title to around 3 months. “Not allowing us to purchase multiple copies of an e-book for two months artificially lengthens the queue, triggering more of the same title to be purchased than would have occurred if we had been allowed to buy for the first two months,” she explains. “With an ever-increasing demand to buy a wide variety of digital titles, we do not think this is the best use of public funds.”

. . . .

The “principled” argument, Rosenblum says, is to send a message to other publishers that public libraries cannot accept limits on basic access. To do so, she writes, would “profoundly” change the public library.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG has posted about this stupid plan by Macmillan before here and here.

Suffice to say, this is harmful to libraries and those who use them and unlikely to generate significantly more revenue for Macmillan.

As far as Macmillan’s justification – that library patrons will buy more Macmillan books if they can’t borrow them, PG expects this is likely the case in the short run. However, as library patrons continue to discover new authors they love through the books they borrow, and buy books from those authors, and tell all their friends how great those authors books are, Macmillan is short-changing its owners and its authors by effectively giving up on a major (and free) source of additional sales.

As compared with purchasing advertising and giving big discounts to Barnes & Noble (is that still a thing?), whatever dribs and drabs Macmillan fails to garner from regular library patrons who decide they simply must read whatever Macmillan claims is the latest and greatest instead of borrowing a different book are a drop in the bucket compared to the priceless word-of-mouth avid readers provide.

15 thoughts on “Major Public Library System Will Boycott Macmillan E-books”

  1. I’m actually a King County Library patron, and it’s an unusual library in that it allows patrons to suggest ebooks and audiobooks for purchase — and often purchases them. But when they don’t purchase a book I suggest, I don’t get any notice why. (I can tell through the Overdrive app whether or not a book I want is available to the library for purchase.)

    It really is an amazing library system though. It services Microsoft’s home town of Redmond; I wouldn’t be surprised if the per-capita consumption of audiobooks and e-books were among the highest in the nation.

  2. King County Library (KCL) will boycott Macmillan ebooks in order to persuade Macmillan to change its behavior.

    I see three flaws in KCL’s reasoning.

    1. KCL assumes their boycott will result in a drop in Macmillan’s profits such that Macmillan will notice. Unlikely.

    2. If, however, the conditions in 1 obtained, KCL assumes that Macmillan will correctly attribute the drop to its ebook policy toward libraries. Not gonna happen. Macmillan will do what it has always done: Blame the writers.

    3. KCL assumes that Macmillan will act rationally. Objection. Assumes facts not in evidence.

  3. I suspect that this disagreement is why Tor Forge is sponsoring the Librarian’s Tea at the upcoming Bouchercon mystery convention. Somehow I doubt sponsoring is tea party for librarians is going to bring MacMillan back into the librarian’s good graces.

  4. I have to confess that I fail to follow the logic here. Or rather I guess mainly that I think the logic is based on a hidden premise.

    The logic is:

    a. Macmillan is behaving egregiously towards institutional customers (i.e. libraries)
    b. Libraries want to push back on stupid rules
    c. Libraries are trying to get readers on board to support them (I got an email from our local library asking us to sign a petition, cuz I’m sure that will matter)
    d. Macmillan will care.

    The hidden assumption in (c) is that readers/library patrons will care. Yet the last ten years of self-publishing, and 1000s of articles here on TPV give testimony to it, have shown that readers don’t care who the publisher is. That’s why KU works. It is why CreateSPace works. It is why self-publishing works. Because readers DON’T CARE who the publisher is. They only care how they get to the books.

    If they can get it easily, they do it. If you put friction in front of them, some push on, some just stop. They choose something else. Anti-piracy efforst in the UK on video know s this as they target the boxes that make it easy, not the hosting websites; Napster made it easy, so they got targeted; people go after website domains to shut down the facilitator. Amazon knows this, it’s why they have the one-click pay button…reduce friction, increase sales; increase friction, decrease sales.

    The “who published it” isn’t friction. The only limit is access. If a library doesn’t stock it, some will push past and still buy it on Amazon (not hard to find it if you really want it). Others will choose substitute goods and read something else.

    But I don’t believe readers will stop buying MacMillan because the library can’t. In fact, I suspect MacMillan will make more by stopping it. Which is why they’re doing it.

    Wait a few months until a few others who can’t get their books in a library in their hometown because the library is boycotting Macmillan and see what happens when they whine to hte press — who’ll cave? MacMillan or the library? Or somebody who wants the latest book by so and so and doesn’t want to pay for it, and complains to their city council that slow access is still better than no access. Libraries REALLY don’t want citizens paying too much attention to how they manage their budgets.


    • People who buy BPH books will keep on buying them. That’s a given.

      But Libraries spend a lot of money on books on behalf of tbeir patrons and that is money MacMillan won’t get in the event of a buycott…
      …as long as the libraries don’t spend it on pbooks.

      What the publicity of the boycott is really intended to do is shift the onus of unavailability to the publisher instead of the library.

      And yes, readers don’t care about publishers…in most cases. Exceptions do exist. Some publishers *are* brands (BAEN, OSPREY, O’Reilly, Harlequin…) and some were but aren’t terribly strong anymore (Doubleday, Ballentine, DelRey, etc) so it’s not impossible that library patrons might associate MacMillan with library hostility.

      It’s not totally useless but it *is* a feeble response.
      Unless other big library systems join in.

      While griping, MacMillan did say that libraries make a moderate portion of their ebook sales so if enough libraries join in and hold the line for a couple years, then *maybe* they’ll get the other BPHs to have second thoughts and not follow MacMillan.

      A stronger reaction would be to totally blacklist MacMillan from most if not all libfaries but the biggest reaction would be if libraries stopped ghetto-izing indies or even visibly endorsed them, maybe through a deal with Overdrive/Kobo or even KU (something like Prime reading).

      That would get the BPH’s attention since libraries as a whole are probably their third or fourth largest revenue source after Amazon, Ingram, and B&N. Discovery aside, libraries spend a lot of money on BPH books which is why they don’t abandon the market despite all their whining.

      Think of tbis as an incrementalist war.
      Libraries are unhappy but still don’t appreciate tbeir full power. Still, they’ve moved from supplicants to slightly more active levels of protest.

      They might yet move to fully voting their wallets but I’m not holding my breath.

      • As a reader, I don’t much care about the publisher, but I think it is notable if that publisher makes it clear it does not value it’s library readers.
        If searching for an ebook gives me a message exposing that the publisher’s policy is to refuse to sell more than 1 copy to libraries, I would certainly form a negative impression.
        Alternatives books should be openly displayed, including Indies. And, if it’s helpful a link to either a petition or legislator for a canned email complaint.

      • What the publicity of the boycott is really intended to do is shift the onus of unavailability to the publisher instead of the library.

        Reminds me of Douglas Preston leading eight hundred of the finest writers in the English language. That mighty literary force sent out the call to consumers far and wide. They even
        dispatched Fedex riders to Amazon board members’ houses.

        And they learned nobody gave a hoot. Consumers are a tough bunch.

  5. However, as library patrons continue to discover new authors they love through the books they borrow, and buy books from those authors,

    Maybe they will hear about a Macmillan book book from their friends, and buy the book, putting new revenue in Macmillan’s pockets.

    We can all dream up plausible scenarios, but there is no reason to believe any of them because we simply don’t know.

    • However, it is a reasonable assumption that the two sets of book discovery methods are not equivalent. Nor are they disjoint, of course.

      There is also that intersection between the two sets. The (mostly) purchasing discoverer may influence the (mostly) library discoverer by word of mouth – but the possibility of a reverse influence is now impossible.

      One can also say (and with solid research that backs the statement, in this case, besides common sense) that purchase is a far higher bar to reach than free. Or at least cheap. I do buy books (both “book books” and “e books”) from some authors – but I read a far larger number of pages, and many more authors, in KU.

      • However, it is a reasonable assumption that the two sets of book discovery methods are not equivalent.

        Of course. And it’s also reasonable to assume there are lots of other factors entering into the picture that I didn’t mention.

        These things can’t be easily reduced to simple systems.

        And relying on common sense? Go for it.

          • We could bring all these discussions to a quick and devastating close if someone would tell the library folks about the solid research. Then they and their allies could flog people like me with the solid research. Don’t they know about it?

            We wouldn’t even have to hope the common sense is sensible.

  6. Half measure.
    They need to boycott everything from MacMillan and tell their patrons why so they can choose to join in.
    Otherwise, they’re giving them what tbey really want: zero library ebooks.

    • Agreed, though this too will hurt MacMillan a bit in discovering their writers.

      I’d not buy any more of their a/e/pbooks – and any already on the shelves I’d put in the fifty cents bin.

      • Long term.
        By the time they notice it’ll be just another reason to blame low sales on the authors. Because of the authors were good they wouldn’t need library exposure.

        Just remember the way the BPHs work: what one gets away with, the rest copy. And Penguin has always been anti-library. MacMillan is just the first.

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