Library users in Johnson and Linn counties will see increased wait times for new ebooks as a major publisher restricts access

Ebook reader — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Starting on Nov. 1, wait times to borrow some new ebooks from public libraries will get longer — in some cases, significantly longer — as publishing giant Macmillan imposes new limits on the number of copies of its ebooks libraries can loan.

Public libraries will only be able to purchase one copy of a book during the first eight weeks after its publication, under the new licensing agreements with Macmillan that start at the beginning of November.

Macmillan is the only one of the five big publishing companies that will impose such a limit.

In a July memo to “Macmillan Authors, Macmillan Illustrators, and Agents,” the company’s CEO Jack Sargent said the idea of restricting library access to new books was a “response to our growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales.”

“For Macmillan, 45% of the ebook reads in the US are now being borrowed for free from libraries,” Sargent said in the memo. “And that number is still growing rapidly.”

The reason library loans make up an increasing percentage of ebooks reads has little to do with libraries, but instead is the result of the sharp decline in ebook sales since 2015. The format has become less popular, as readers turn increasingly to audiobooks and printed books.

Although the decline in ebook sales has slowed since 2017, sales of ebooks during the first three months of this year were 4.9 percent lower than during the same period in 2018. But audiobook sales increased 35 percent during the same period, and sales of hardcover and paperback books went up as well, by 7.8 and 3.1 percent, respectively.

Overall net revenue for all commercial publishers was 5.7 percent higher in the first quarter of 2019, compared to the first quarter of 2018.

In his memo, Sargent laid out the new terms of Macmillan’s ebook licensing agreement with libraries. (Even though it is common to talk about “buying an ebook,” no one actually buys a copy of an ebook — just a license to have a copy of the ebook on a storage device, like a Kindle or a Nook.)

Currently the publisher charges a library $60 for each copy of an ebook it licenses, and that license has be renewed — i.e., the library has to pay again — after two years or 52 loans of the ebook, whichever comes first, if it wants to continue to loan that copy of the ebook. For the single copy that will be available for the first eight weeks after publication, Macmillan will charge a library $30 for a license that never needs to renewed. The old terms will apply to any additional copies purchased after the first eight weeks.

Public libraries across the country, including the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL), have protested Macmillan’s new policy.

“Macmillan Publishers’ new model for library eBook lending will make it difficult for libraries to fulfill our central mission: ensuring access to information for all,” American Library Association President Wanda Brown said in a written statement.

The new policy will have a bigger impact in Johnson and Linn counties than it will in some other communities. That’s because libraries in both counties share digital resources, including ebooks. In Johnson County, the ebook collections of ICPL and the public libraries of Coralville and North Liberty are maintained in partnership through Digital Johnson County. Metro Library Network manages the digital resources of the public libraries in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha.

Because those libraries buy their ebooks through those partnerships, there will only be one new Macmillan book available to all the patrons of all the partner libraries — one for ICPL, Coralville and North Liberty, and one for Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha — during the restricted eight week period.

“Digital content is portable, accessible to people with print disabilities, available anywhere 24/7, and brokered by libraries to provide diverse options to our diverse communities,” ICPL said in a blog post last week. “A core tenet of the public library mission is to provide free and equal access to information. Macmillan’s new model threatens this mission.”

Because of corporate mergers in the publishing industry over recent decades, Macmillan owns multiple publishing imprints, including Celadon Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, First Second, Flatiron Books, Henry Holt & Co., Picador, St. Martin’s Press and Tor/Forge.

The American Library Association has an online petition asking Macmillan to reverse its decision. As of Oct. 25, the petition had almost 149,500 signatures.

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