Publisher’s decision to limit eBook access is bad news for library patrons

What’s at stake is the issue of digital equity and access.

A recent decision by a book publisher to limit public libraries’ access to eBooks 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 eBooks. 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 eBooks, an amount that is more than fair to the publisher’s bottom line. KCLS has spent more than $2.3 million on eBooks alone since last July. In fact, KCLS was one of the first library systems to launch the eBook 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 United States for the last five years and third worldwide. According to Rakuten OverDrive, KCLS patrons downloaded nearly five million eBooks and audiobooks 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 5 eBooks 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 had been 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 eBook.

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 the public express their concerns to press.inquiries@macmillan.com or ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office at alawash.@alawash.org.

Lisa Rosenblum is the executive director of the King County Library System.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how KCLS’s purchase to holds ratio works. For every five holds placed on a title, KCLS purchases one copy to ensure a maximum wait time of three months

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