Update on Ebook Advocacy

ALA and others to address publishers at Digital Book World

September 9, 2019

Advocacy Update

On July 25, Macmillan Publishers radically changed its policy for library ebook lending. The most drastic component of this change is an embargo on new titles for eight weeks after the acquisition of a sole copy by a library system or consortium. The American Library Association (ALA) and other library advocates reacted quickly, and more advocacy efforts are in the works.

ALA President Wanda K. Brown said in a July 25 statement, “When a library serving many thousands has only a single copy of a new title in ebook format, it’s the library—not the publisher—that feels the heat. It’s the local library that’s perceived as being unresponsive to community needs.” While none of the largest publishers offers a favorable price model, “Macmillan is the sole major publisher to impose such an embargo on library ebook lending,” Public Library Association (PLA) President Ramiro Salazar said in a July 31 statement.

Library professionals around the country are also speaking out to object to the Macmillan embargo. State library associations have issued formal statements to denounce the change, from New Hampshire and Missouri to Texas and Virginia. In objecting to the embargo, the Illinois Library Association stated on August 15, “There are ways to do this that balances business interests and equitable access to information.” Lisa Rosenblum, director of King County (Wash.) Library System wrote in an August 1 Wall Street Journal letter, “Neither writers nor readers will benefit from this practice to limit availability to ebooks to library patrons.”

The outcry isn’t only from librarians. Author Neil Gaiman tweeted July 26: “This just seems like a way for Macmillan to sell fewer digital books to libraries.” Romance Writers of America said in an August 2 statement that it is “concerned about the impact those terms will have on libraries and readers.” More forcefully, OverDrive CEO Steve Potash wrote on his blog August 1, “The story of how they [Macmillan Publishers] arrived at this discriminatory practice that denies access to an author’s new work is a doozy.”

Why is this public outcry important? The most obvious reason is trying to persuade Macmillan to change its course. But a strong public showing will also serve to discourage other publishers from going down the embargo road. In addition, such action is critical to any legislative, regulatory, or judicial path. Broad community and public support strengthens the case that our position is correct public policy, and supporting us is advantageous to prospective political partners.

ALA and PLA will be taking our ebook advocacy efforts to the general public with a press conference this week during the Digital Book World trade show in Nashville. The press conference will be livestreamed on ALA’s Facebook page at 11 a.m. CST on September 11. ALA members and the general public are encouraged to follow the conversation on social media using #eBooksForAll.

Looking ahead, the two prongs of librarian criticism and public outcry will be supplemented with political ones. ALA has already begun work on this issue and is contemplating further possibilities. It will also continue collaboration with its fellow library associations and other allies. Success also depends on the continuing support of libraries, library organizations, and library workers and advocates across the country.

Updated Sept. 11 to add press release link.


illustration of an ebook surrounded by clouds with the Big Five publisher logos

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