Originally published in The Chillicothe Gazette, September 29, 2019.
Library patrons know the value of a sharing economy.
Some people may be able to afford a monthly Audible subscription, but most can’t. Libraries harness the power of sharing resources in order to provide access to all and eBooks should be no different. Our library system circulated 55,000 eBooks and eAudiobooks in 2018, but providing patrons with these materials is an uphill battle thanks to a fairly unregulated publisher’s market.
Over the past couple months, some of the biggest eBook publishers, including Macmillan and Blackstone, have enacted embargoes on libraries purchasing content for their patrons. If you are a library user who checks out e-content from the Ohio Digital Library (ODL), you know that the average wait time for a title is approximately 48 days. That’s insane when you can walk into any of our library locations and pick up a hard copy of a new book within a week or two of its publication.
Macmillan and Blackstone have placed 3- and 4-month embargoes on libraries that 1) count the entire ODL consortium (over 250 library systems) as one library, and 2) limits us to one copy of a new book for the entire consortium for the first 3 or 4 months after publication. Obviously, this embargo is making wait times longer.
Publishers also charge libraries anywhere from five to 10 times more per title than they do for regular customers in an attempt to cripple our purchasing ability, and in turn, library patron access. It is your tax dollars, after all, and libraries have a duty to spend those funds wisely. The growing demand for e-content coupled with the outrageous pricing makes it difficult to provide reasonable and equitable access.
Some publishers don’t embargo libraries, but they do require lending limitations. HarperCollins, for example, imposes strict metered access and forces libraries to repurchase a title after it has been checked out 26 times. Many physical books can check out hundreds of times before falling apart.
Other publishers, like Simon & Schuster and Hatchette, require us to repurchase titles every 24 months. Some publishers refuse to make their eBooks available to libraries at all.
Why is this happening? While libraries across the country are educating their patrons and asking them to call on the big publishers to change their limitations, I’m looking at the bigger picture. Fair Use laws protect print materials, but the digital realm is like the Wild West. Updated copyright legislation for electronic materials is badly needed.
Currently, eBooks are not viewed as material sales, but as software sales, therefore allowing publishers total control over the use of “licensed” content. Not only can we not re-sell digital material (think library book sales), but the publishers have the right to set any “licensing” limitations they choose in order to gain maximum profits.
With Amazon seemingly feeding publishers details about library Kindle checkouts from the ODL, the problem is exemplified. Macmillan, for example, is trying to make the case based on those checkout statistics that library usage is taking away from their profits. They announced their embargo right before the upcoming holiday season, most likely so that they’ll have corroborating data to “prove” their point. Don’t forget that Amazon owns Audible.
So what lies ahead? Libraries have always provided equitable access to materials, but these big publishers are absolutely marginalizing the most disadvantaged patrons. Libraries are partners of the publishing community. We adhere to copyright laws, and we are willing to pay fair prices for the content we purchase for our patrons, but these lending policies are making it difficult to fulfill that mission. Furthermore, we love our authors, and we want to support them, too.
Your friends at the library are fighting for you. The American Library Association, the Ohio Library Council, and others are speaking out against the eBook embargoes. Feel free to write to the big publishers – or even your lawmakers – to make your voice heard, too. If you post your opinions online, use the hashtag #ebooksforall to gain traction.
I fear that this won’t be remedied without a hard look at the copyright laws for digital materials. In the meantime, stop by the library for a real book that you can hold in your hands. The battery won’t die, the content will be immediately available, and hundreds of other people can enjoy the same story after you’re finished.
Jennifer Slone is Access Team Leader at Chillicothe and Ross County Public Library, where she manages the library’s digital services as well as the IT, Technical Processing, and Outreach departments. She also serves on the Ohio Library Council Board of Directors.