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Libraries fight for eBooks

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By Melissa Koenig

mkoenig@liherald.com

Starting next month, only one Nassau County resident will be able to download any given Macmillan Publishers’ eBook from the county’s library system at a time.

A representative of Macmillan — which operates in more than 70 countries — could not be reached for comment as of press time. But State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont, said the policy, which she called an embargo, is meant to entice people to buy a book rather than wait weeks for an eBook copy to become available.

In a previously confidential memo that CEO John Sargent sent to various Macmillan branches on July 25, Sargent said that, starting in November, the company would limit the number of eBooks that a public library system could license to one copy in the first eight weeks after a book is released.

“One thing is abundantly clear,” Sargent wrote in the now public memo. “The growth in eBook lends through libraries has been remarkable. For Macmillan, 45 percent of the eBook reads in the U.S. are now being borrowed for free from libraries. And that number is still growing rapidly. The average revenue we get from those library reads (after the wholesale share) is well under two dollars and dropping, a small fraction of the revenue we share with you on a retail read.”

At an Oct. 17 news conference, Solages and library directors from across Long Island challenged that notion. Solages argued that the eBooks the libraries lend turn readers into “lifelong fans,” who then buy other books by those books’ authors, and asked Macmillan to reverse its decision.

“So you see here today, we’re not quiet, we’re not going to shush people,” Solages said. “Today we’re actually going to be very loud because we want to ensure that our patrons have access to books that come out as soon as possible and not have to wait.”

The American Library Association also created an online petition to have the publishing company reverse its decision. As of press time, the petition had garnered more than 128,000 signatures.

“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,” ALA President Wanda Brown said in a 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.”

This year, the Nassau County Library System is on track to reach a million eBook checkouts from the system’s Overdrive app, and spent nearly $1 million on Macmillan titles last year, according to Director Caroline Ashby. The libraries buy eBook licenses at two to five times the price that a consumer pays, she explained, which usually ranges from $15 to $75 per copy.

In Elmont, Library Director Jean Simpson estimated that 30 percent of the library’s checkouts are eBooks, but that figure increases over the summer, when students must complete reading assignments and families go on vacation. And in Franklin Square, Interim Director Aviva Kane said the library circulated almost 8,400 eBooks this year.

The so-called embargo will also affect older adults, low-income individuals and people with disabilities, Ashby said. A 2012 national Harris poll showed that older adults made up the highest percentage of tablet and e-reader owners, and Ashby noted that eBooks allow users to increase the size of the text. Additionally, she said, the ability to download eBooks allows those with mobility issues to access library books, and the eBooks offer backlit displays and are lighter than traditional books.

A 2016 Slate article reported that schools serving low-income students did not typically have a large selection of age-appropriate books. With the Overdrive app, however, anyone, regardless of income level, can download an eBook from the local library.

But if the policy takes effect, Ashby said, eBooks would once again be limited to those who could afford them. “The embargo creates a barrier to access for the very people that need the library the most,” she said. “We’re not going to stand for it. We’re not going to purchase the one copy meant to frustrate our users, [and] we’re going to think twice about selecting Macmillan titles for promotion and book club picks.”

Locally, Simpson and Kane echoed these sentiments. Simpson said the Elmont Memorial Library would not buy books from Macmillan unless patrons asked for them until the company reversed its policy, and Kane said the Franklin Square library “fully supports the initiative Nassau County” has put forward, under which, she and other librarians will not purchase any Macmillan eBooks and “will not go out of our way” to purchase any of the company’s print books.

JD Freda contributed to this story.