“The reason we’re here is to listen and understand more deeply what your point of view is,” said John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishers, at the outset of an unorthodox question-and-answer session at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Philadelphia on January 25.
Sargent, who has been at the center of Macmillan’s controversial ebook lending policy that took effect November 1—a model that limits libraries to purchasing one copy of each new ebook and imposes an eight-week embargo on additional copies—invited attendees to “ask him anything.” Before opening the floor to comments, he explained to attendees how Macmillan arrived at its decision.
“What we are trying to do is find a way to rebalance the ecosystem given the digital disruption in our industry,” said Sargent, who maintained that a drop in ebook sales but steep curve in ebook lending—55% of Macmillan’s ebook customers read them through the library, he said—would make the previous model untenable within the next two or three years.
“We are a business and … we have a huge fiduciary responsibility to authors,” said Sargent. “We have two levers: One is price, one is availability.”
Though, he relented: “It’s clear the library community hated what we tried.”
Librarians and library workers in the room—including many who have been involved with ALA’s #eBooksForAll campaign—expressed frustration at Macmillan’s ebook embargo and commented on such things as alternative models, overlooked stakeholders, and diminished user access.
“You indicated you’re open to other models,” Ramiro S. Salazar, president of the Public Library Association, director of San Antonio Public Library, and a founder of the #eBooksForAll campaign, said to Sargent. “Are you willing to engage libraries to explore these models?”
Sargent responded by saying that the company would not be ready to look at other models until at least March, and that “[Macmillan] talked to what we thought was a representative sample” of 35 libraries. But, as attendees noted, the publisher did not reach out to key agencies, including the Association for Rural and Small Libraries.
North Dakota State Librarian Mary Soucie, one to point this out, commented on how adversely libraries in consortia suffer the effects of the new policy. “A library that serves a population of 1,000 shares the same ebook with Fargo Public Library,” she said. “Every patron in North Dakota who’s in that consortium has access to one [copy].”
“We get one [ebook] copy for everyone in New Hampshire, so no one is reading Macmillan books,” Amy Lappin, president of New Hampshire Library Association and deputy director of Lebanon Public Libraries, told Sargent. “We’re willing to pay you for [ebooks] and, quite frankly, we already pay you more than the consumer pays.”
A handful of attendees suggested small concessions Macmillan could make now (rather than wait until an evaluation in March), including ways to broaden access to ebooks in libraries.
“As an olive branch, why don’t you allow one [copy] per library in a consortium, instead of one for the consortium, or one per branch in an urban library?” asked Patrick Losinski, CEO of Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library.
Others in the crowd asked Sargent to provide metrics that contributed to Macmillan’s decision, to which he replied that the company would share only “summary data.”
Kent Oliver, director of Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library, was among those attending to request data validating the new model: “We received terms that we didn’t feel were fair or financially viable.”
In a press release published immediately after Sargent’s AMA, ALA restated its commitment to the #eBooksForAll campaign and noted that its position has remained unchanged since Macmillan’s new model was announced in July 2019.
At the close of the hour-and-a-half-long event, Sargent said he wouldn’t yet commit to any changes, but promised to look at certain pieces of the lending policy. “We’ll see how the math works,” he said. “We’ll see if we can come back with something for you guys.”