Libraries pushing back against new limits on ebook licenses

Libraries nationwide are pushing back against one of the country’s largest book publishers and their planned change to ebook licenses.

Macmillan Publishers announced that beginning Nov. 1, libraries will only be able to purchase a single license, or one copy, of each of their new ebook titles for the first eight weeks after its released.

That rule will apply to all libraries, regardless of size, as well as consortiums of libraries, like the one in Montana that purchases ebooks and audio books for most public libraries in the state.

For Montanans, that means for any new ebook from Macmillan, there would be even longer wait times for popular new releases.

The MontanaLibrary2Go consortium serves about 800,000 people.

Great Falls Public Library Director Susie McIntyre told The Electric that under the system as it is, the consortium can purchase a perpetual license for each copy of a title. Those licenses are typically more expensive and only one user can read the title at a time.

A cheaper option is a one copy, one user meter access license. Those are limited by either a number of checkouts or for a specific amount of time.

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For example, McIntyre said the 1930s Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie is available to the public on Apple for $9.99 per copy, or on Amazon for $1.99. For libraries, the cost is $14.99 for 26 checkouts.

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But, the Macmillan’s new rule would create an entirely new system for books they publish, which includes many popular titles and major authors.

McIntyre said for the first eight weeks after a book’s release, only one license would be available to a library for $30. That would be a perpetual license.

“It’s basically the same as not allowing access,” McIntyre said.

During the Sept. 17 work session, McIntyre told City Commissioners that “if they don’t change their mind and other publishers follow suit, it will be devastating to libraries.”

After eight weeks, the consortium can purchase metered access copies for $60 for each license. Those licenses would be good for two years.

After the book has been out a year, then libraries can buy additional metered access copies for $40 each.

The part libraries are mad about, McIntyre said, is restricting the first eight weeks to one copy.

“We think it’s really unfair not only to libraries, but also to the people we serve,” McIntyre said.

Of the current system, she said, “We know that we don’t have enough copies, but it’s so expensive. We know people love it and we get complaints all the time that the wait time is too long.”

The American Library Association has started an online petition and discussed the Macmillan issue during a press conference last week that coincided with the Digital Book World Conference.

In a letter to authors, illustrators and agents, Macmillan CEO John Sargent wrote that last year, the company windowed a portion of their ebook frontlist for 16 weeks as a test due to their growing fears that “library lending was cannibalizing sales.”

Sargent wrote for Macmillan, 45 percent of the ebook reads in the U.S. are being borrowed for free from libraries.

“The average revenue we get from those library reads (after the wholesaler share) is well under two dollars and dropping, a small fraction of the revenue we share with you on a retail read,” Sargent wrote. “It seems that given a choice between a purchase of an ebook for $12.99 or a frictionless lend for free, the American ebook reader is starting to lean heavily toward free.”

In the letter, Sargent wrote that the company is reducing the cost in half for the license of a book for the first eight weeks, which “reflects the library request for lower prices and perpetual access.”

McIntyre said that libraries provide access to all residents, regardless of their ability to pay and expose people to a variety of authors and types of books.

“We’re like the wine tasting room,” she said.

If readers try different authors and get hooked on a series, they’re more likely to purchase books in the future, McIntyre said. While that’s not true for everyone, she said it’s important that libraries retain their ability to offer access to the public.

For the Great Falls Public Library, ebooks and audio books accounted for about 15 percent of checkouts, McIntyre said and that number has been growing.

“It’s the wave of the future and libraries need to stay relevant, but we’re not going to be able to if the publishers won’t sell us the books,” McIntyre said.

In addition to allowing access to all socioeconomic levels, “ebooks have been a godsend” to people with visual impairment and audio books have been a game changer for dyslexic students, McIntyre said.

Studies have shown that the brain gets a lot of the same workout from audio books as it does from reading a print book, McIntyre said.

McIntyre said Macmillan’s limit on the number of licenses only applies to ebooks, not audio books or physical books. Publishers say print books wear out and ebooks don’t, which is why they charge more for ebook licenses, she said.

But that’s a separate issue that comes into play with all publishing houses, McIntyre said.