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Ebooks and Embargoes In Eleven Links

Ebooks and Embargoes In Eleven Links

January 2020

The uproar has been significant. In mid-2019, Macmillan CEO John Sargent notified Macmillan authors and illustrators as well as the agents representing them of new terms for ebook sales to libraries. Specifically, his explanation to authors went as follows:

Our new terms are designed to protect the value of your books during their first format publication. But they also ensure that the mission of libraries is supported. They honor the libraries’ archival mandate and they reduce the cost and administrative burden associated with ebook lending. We are trying to address the concerns of all parties.

The terms: We will make one copy of your ebook available to each library system in perpetuity upon publication. On that single copy we will cut the price in half to $30 (currently first copies are $60 and need renewal after two years or 52 lends). This change reflects the library request for lower prices and perpetual access. Additional copies of that title will not be available for library purchase until 8 weeks after publication. All other terms remain in place. It is important to note that the 8-week window only applies to ebooks; the library can order as many physical books as they like on publication

Almost immediately, the American Library Association responded, quoting then ALA President Wanda Brown, “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...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...Macmillan’s new policy is unacceptable. ALA urges Macmillan to cancel the embargo.”

During the fall of 2019, libraries launched a petition campaign and sought to engage both public interest as well as the interest of Congress.  

Aware of the anger, in a subsequent letter directed specifically to librarians, Sargent followed up with an apology for any appearance of disrespect and expressed the problem his company faced as due to decreases in the “perceived economic value of a book”. He offered additional details on Macmillan’s rationale for the embargo.  

We have two variables we can adjust to address the problem: price and availability. You have been adamant with us on the issue of price, and when we looked at it we understood why. In the long run, we felt ever-increasing prices to libraries would be detrimental and would not address the perceived value issue in any case. So we decided on the other variable, availability. In our tests, it seemed to work and the response from some of you seemed understanding. So we announced an eight-week window (along with the first copy price drop and perpetual access for that copy). 

Publishers Weekly covered Sargent’s second letter and noted Sargent's intent to be present during the American Library Association Midwinter meeting in Philadelphia. 

Unsurprisingly, a good-sized audience materialized at Midwinter this year for that session. Tweets using the #ebooksforall hashtag poured forth, as those in the room listened and engaged with the resolute CEO. 

Setting the framework, Sargent recalls early days of Kindle-driven ebook sales as problematic (eventually leading to agency pricing), says recent growth of library ebook lending is similar situation. Impacts authors revenue.

— Panorama Project (@PanoramaProjOrg) January 25, 2020


Sargent notes Overdrive's 3m digital circulation stat includes magazines, audio, front and backlist ebooks. "We don't know how much of that is front list." Acknowledges lack of hard data that proves libraries' negative impact, but focuses on "max value" of front list.

— Panorama Project (@PanoramaProjOrg) January 25, 2020

The protective nature of those non-disclosure-agreements did not calm the audience's response. A question of trust arose.

Question: how can you overcome the lack of trust if you’re not willing to share data? #alamw20 #eBooksForAll

— Todd Carpenter (@TAC_NISO) January 25, 2020


Sargent acknowledges Amazon is the only entity with 360 data (consumer and library), says what they shared w/Macmillan drove their new terms. NDAs and author privacy mean they can't share any of that data beyind the summaries they've offered. Stalemate. #alamw20

— Panorama Project (@PanoramaProjOrg) January 25, 2020


Librarian : you are controlling supply to effect demand. Sargent: No, we are controlling supply to increase price. (Me: distinction with a difference?) #alamw20 #eBooksForAll

— Todd Carpenter (@TAC_NISO) January 25, 2020

If Twitter's staccato back-and-forth is difficult to parse, read the in-depth coverage published by Information Today

Mark Smith, Director of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, issued his assessment of the situation in a public letter, after he sat in on the Midwinter session, saying: 

Macmillan is conducting an experiment that will ultimately indicate the leverage that libraries hold in the market. If Macmillan reverses its policy and if other publishers do not adopt similar pricing/availability models, then we will know that libraries have much more influence in the publishing market than Mr. Sargent thought they did.

No clear solution to the problems of either publisher or library emerged from this session. The publishing community is concerned with ensuring a predictable flow of revenue in order to sustain on-going delivery of titles while balancing demands for a variety of formats. On their side, the library community has concerns about ensuring equitable access to those same titles in whatever format most requested by their patrons while balancing their own budgets. For both communities attempting to navigate shifts in the marketplace, the lack of available data for analysis hinders sound decision-making.  

The Panorama Project (whose tweets are referenced above) describes itself as "a cross-industry research initiative working towards purposeful collaboration and transparency to more accurately measure the role public libraries play in the book business, while partnering with publishers and libraries to measure and analyze the impact of library marketing and events on discovery of specific titles and authors, and sales via local booksellers any beyond."

NISO continues its engagement with Measures That Matter (see our report from the ALA Annual Meeting in 2019, held in Washington DC). Measures that Matter is a collaborative effort announced in 2016 by the Chief Offices of State Library Agencies (COSLA) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to organize and rationalize library data for use in assessing the library’s reach and impact in its community. For additional details or more in-depth information, you are invited to email the organization at

DISCLAIMER: Todd Carpenter serves on the Advisory Board of Panorama, but as an individual and not in his capacity as Executive Director of the NISO organization.