Local Elected Officials Lambast Book Publishers for Limiting Library Access to E-Books

Demand for digital content among library patrons is increasing by 30 percent each year, which publishers say is decreasing the value of the content itself.

Demand for digital content among library patrons is increasing by 30 percent each year, which publishers say is decreasing the value of the content itself. Shutterstock

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Librarians have been boycotting one publishing company over restrictive new policies. Now more than 70 mayors and county executives are urging publishers to grant libraries better access to e-books.

More than 70 city and county leaders are urging publishers to give public libraries better access to digital materials after one company announced new restrictions that will drastically limit the number of e-books that branches are able to buy and circulate.

“Major publishers have introduced severe restrictions to e-book and e-audiobook lending for public libraries, including embargoes on the sales of new titles and unreasonably high prices, which far exceed the prices offered for print books,” reads a statement issued by the Urban Libraries Council and signed by 77 mayors and county executives from across the country. “As a result, libraries will be unable to fulfill their core functions in building educated, literate communities.”

The statement comes six days after the implementation of a new policy from Macmillan Publishers that allows libraries to buy only one discounted copy of new e-books during the first two months after they’re published. After those eight weeks, libraries can buy “expiring” copies, which need to be re-purchased after two years or 52 loans. The initial copy limit is the same for libraries of all sizes, so a rural library serving 2,500 readers and the Los Angeles Public Library, which serves a metro area of more than 18 million people, both get just one book for all their readers.

Libraries have roundly criticized the policy, with some announcing boycotts of new Macmillan e-books. A petition from the American Library Association formally protesting the change has gathered more than 189,000 signatures from readers across the country.

Macmillan, which publishes popular authors like Louise Penny, Nora Roberts and Jonathan Safran Foer, declined to comment about the backlash. In a "Dear Librarians" letter released last month, Macmillan CEO John Sargent said the change was necessary to protect the value of the work produced by authors, illustrators and publishers.

“I realize the lack of availability in the first eight weeks will frustrate some e-book patrons, and that will make your jobs more difficult,” he wrote. “Your patrons would be happy if they could get any book they wanted instantly and seamlessly, but that would be severely debilitating for authors, publishers, and retailers. We are trying to find a middle ground.”

The move by Macmillan is the latest in a string of policies set by publishers that attempt to manage copyrighted material without losing revenue in a culture increasingly dominated by digital material.

But librarians say these policies are expensive for their institutions. Libraries already pay much higher prices for e-books than consumers, according to data from the American Library Association—for example, a digital copy of Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See" costs consumers $12.99, while libraries pay $51.99 for two years or $519.90 for 20 years—even though the circulation model works the same for a digital copy of a book as it does for a hardcover or paperback.

“Just because the library buys the license to an e-book doesn’t mean it’s being read by 50 readers at the same time,” said Curtis Rogers, spokesman for the Urban Libraries Council, a think tank for urban public library systems. “If you have five copies of an e-book, you can lend it to five readers, exactly the same as a physical book.”

Limiting access to those copies is troublesome for several reasons, city and county officials say. Demand for digital content is on the rise (circulation of e-books and downloadable audiobooks is increasing by 30 percent each year), and the format is particularly popular among populations that already struggle to access “equitable knowledge and information,” including seniors, “youth, people living with disabilities and those with limited financial means.”

That demand is part of the problem, according to publishers. Sargent said the embargo policy was designed to save libraries money while also protecting the “perceived economic value of a book,” which the company believes decreases as more and more readers begin borrowing digital media.

Libraries are making it "ever easier to borrow rather than buy,” he wrote in the letter to librarians. “This is causing book-buying customers to change habits, and they are fueling the tremendous growth in e-book lending. This causes a problem across the publishing ecosystem (authors, illustrators, agents, publishers, libraries, retailers, and readers). We are trying to find a solution.”

City officials agreed that keeping publishing financially sustainable is necessary, but said that libraries, as public gatekeepers of the content, should be involved in discussions of how to solve the problem. (Macmillan “considered and deeply discussed” the policy changes with “over 35 libraries, with your suppliers, and with the [American Library Association],” Sargent said in his letter.)

“We are looking for a voice at the table, and we don’t want to sit by while something is imposed on our residents—particularly our residents for whom our library is their access point to information,” said Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education for the District of Columbia. “I think it’s important to say, also, that it’s really important for us that the publishers thrive, and we want the authors to thrive, but at the same time, we are worried about what this restrictive policy signals and what could be impending hardship for our residents if there were more serious restrictions put in place.”

The statement, and the pressure from a growing cohort of lawmakers, will hopefully be enough to reverse the policy, said Denise Driehaus, vice-president of the Board of Commissioners in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati.

“I hope it eases the restriction from the companies, for one,” she said. “And I hope there is this great, broad, collective voice of elected officials and people that care about libraries that join together and say, ‘We need to make this more fair so that people who need it most have access to books.’”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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