New ALA Report Cites Abusive Pricing, Denial and Delay of Sales to Libraries by Major Publishers

ALA denounces Amazon, Macmillan in response to congressional inquiry on competition in digital markets

October 24, 2019

Advocacy Update

The American Library Association (ALA) publicly released a report October 24 explaining that current practices by content publishers and distributors in digital markets limit libraries’ ability to deliver core services. The report was submitted in response to an inquiry from the US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law. It underscores practices by companies like Amazon and Macmillan Publishers “that threaten Americans’ right to read what and how they choose and imperil other fundamental First Amendment freedoms,” according to a statement issued by the Association. The report urges lawmakers to curb what ALA calls anticompetitive practices of digital market actors.

“By outright denying or delaying library access to digital content, dominant actors in digital markets endanger America’s competitiveness and our nation’s cultural heritage,” ALA President Wanda Brown said in an October 24 statement. “Everyone who reads, writes, performs, or sells creative works is harmed when libraries are unable to purchase and deliver content for all in our communities.”

“ALA does not take this issue lightly,” said Alan Inouye, ALA senior director of public policy and government relations, in that statement. “When Amazon—the world’s fifth largest publisher of ebooks—refuses to sell to libraries, or when a Big Five publisher like Macmillan places an eight-week embargo on ebook sales to America’s libraries, we believe it is time to take legislative action.”

The report addresses publishers’ pricing and licensing terms for libraries. It states that over the past 10 years, libraries have spent more than $40 billion acquiring ebooks, streamed music, and audiovisual content from publishers. For popular ebook titles, libraries pay up to five times the consumer price and typically have access for only two years.

Restrictive license terms for streamed music and audiovisual content present libraries with similar access challenges. Streaming licenses are typically constrained to personal use and do not permit library lending or preservation.

“In 100 years, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Spotify, and other companies distributing streamed content may be out of business or no longer maintaining their older works,” the report states. “The only way to ensure the availability of this content to future generations of researchers, students, and artists is for libraries to have the right to preserve it.”

The report also cites dismal conditions in the scholarly and research publication market. Many scholarly journals have transitioned to digital formats, and the journal industry has seen widespread consolidation. Three companies—Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill—account for 85% of the college textbook market. Despite the lower cost of digital technology, the report states, textbook prices have risen three times the rate of inflation over the past two decades. The planned merger of Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education will concentrate the industry even further, according to ALA.

The report’s release follows ALA’s #eBooksForAll campaign in protest of Macmillan’s library embargo, which is scheduled to begin November 1.

“Equitable access to information and creative works is central to the mission of libraries and essential for our nation’s readers and learners,” said Brown in the statement. “Macmillan’s library ebook embargo is just the most recent attack on digital inclusion.”

Inouye said in the October 24 statement, “Beginning next week, ALA and our members in targeted congressional districts will engage legislators on the substance of our report. When librarians and community leaders tell Antitrust Subcommittee members how unfair digital market practices impact their constituents, Congress will listen. ALA will continue to pursue legislative, advocacy, and legal options to ensure everyone in our communities has access to the creative content for which libraries already pay a very high price. We will not stand down.”

Update: The report was released to the public October 24; it was sent to the House Subcommittee on October 15.


#eBooksForAll Update

Possible implications of the scheduled ebook embargo

From left: Patrick Losinski, CEO, Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library; ALA Executive Director Mary Ghikas; Ramiro S. Salazar, San Antonio Public Library director and president of the Public Library Association; and Kent Oliver, director of Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library. (Photo: Emily Wagner)

ALA Announces #eBooksForAll Campaign

Library leaders rally opposition to Macmillan ebook embargo