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Macmillan responds to embargo criticism


Following months of criticism, Macmillan Publishers has officially decided to limit e-book availability to public libraries nationwide.

The UK-based company, which publishes books around the world, announced in July that it would restrict access to one e-book copy per library system in the first eight weeks after publication. The policy, which Macmillan CEO John Sargent called “windowing,” went into effect on Nov. 1.

The American Library Association created an online petition to combat the publisher’s new rule. “America’s libraries are committed to promoting literacy and a love of reading with diverse collections, programs and services for all ages,” the petition read, noting that people with disabilities, children and low-income families rely on e-books from their libraries for literacy.

As of press time, the petition had over 192,000 signatures.

In response, Sargent sent a letter to library systems throughout the country. He detailed his reasoning for the policy’s inception, and provided data to show that it could prove beneficial to the libraries.

Sargent claimed that Macmillan representatives were in constant contact with various library systems, as well as the ALA, while they were creating the guideline. He stated that 26 percent of libraries would save more than 40 percent on e-book purchases under the new windowing policy, and that the company needed to implement it due to the evolving technological landscape.

In the letter, he explained that publishing companies and authors are losing money when books are lent from a library, rather than purchased. Then, Sargent weighed the benefits of raising the price of individual e-books versus limiting their availability.

“We are not trying to hurt libraries,” Sargent argued. “We are trying to balance the needs of the system in a new and complex world.”

A representative from Macmillan could not be reached for comment by press time.

Alan Inouye, ALA’s lead negotiator in the policy battle, refuted Sargent’s claims. He said that he had met with Macmillan representatives between December 2018 and May 2019, but never reached an agreement with them. 

“They had a proposal and presented it,” he said, “and we provided our feedback, and that was it.” Inouye also disclosed that Macmillan presented two initial proposals before moving forward with the current policy without his or Senior Policy Officer Sari Feldman’s input.

Inouye added that the ALA disagrees that windowing is necessary in today’s society. He said that Macmillan did not provide the ALA with the formula it used to reach the percentages presented in the letter, and that four of the “Big Five” book publishers have not implemented a similar policy. (See sidebar)

“No other industry is looking to punish libraries the way Macmillan is,” said Caroline Ashby, the director the Nassau Library System, adding that it is a “democratic principle for everyone to have the same access to e-book content. Americans should have the right to read whatever, whenever and however they want.”

In Wantagh, Library Director Joan Morris said online readership is increasing monthly, with 426 active online users in July and 461 in August. She said that trend is likely to continue. 

Director Jean Simpson estimated that 30 percent of the Elmont Library’s checkouts are e-books, but that figure increases over the summer when students complete reading assignments or families go on vacation. 

Many of those who read e-books are older adults, low-income individuals and people with disabilities. A 2012 national Harris poll showed that older adults made up the highest percentage of tablet and e-reader owners. Ashby said the ability to download e-books allows those with mobility issues to access library books. The technology uses backlit displays, is lighter than traditional books and enables users to increase the size of the text.

Inouye said the policy also affects children in low-income areas. While some families have the means to purchase e-books, he said, others rely on libraries to promote literacy from a young age. A 2015 School Library Journal study asked teachers about their students’ interest in e-books. Two reported that students who came from low-income areas, wanted to read e-books, but did not have an e-reader. One teacher said the students who did have the devices were more likely to buy e-books personally, rather than rent them from the library. 

“Some people have said, ‘What’s the big deal? People could just get the print book,’” Inouye said. “That whole thinking is just so offensive.” Increasing accessibility, he added, “is just the right thing to do.”