eBook Warfare: Publishers are Changing the Rules About eBooks, and Librarians are Not Staying Silent About It!

Have you ever heard of a business flat out refusing to sell their product to a reliable and well-funded customer? 

Sounds like a crazy way to do business.  However, that is the case right now between some publishers and libraries.  Several major publishing houses have set up a business model to make it difficult and expensive for public libraries to purchase eBooks.   One of the largest publishers in the world completely refuses to sell any eBooks to public libraries.

Why the heck would publishers want to do this?  In short, publishers believe that they are seeing decreased sales of eBooks due to library borrowing. 

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Let’s start from the beginning.  Libraries and publishers had a long-standing business model for regular print books that was governed by law.  Libraries could purchase as many copies as they wished, usually at a volume discount. These copies were owned perpetually by the library and could be lent out until the copy fell apart or was discarded.  Publishers and libraries coexisted peacefully for many decades through this arrangement. To put it in context, many large library systems, like the one I work for in Florida, spend millions of dollars on books every year, making them reliable and trusted customers.

Electronic items such as eBooks do not follow this model.  Instead, the libraries have to buy a license to obtain a copy.  Some licenses allow perpetual access. However, publishers like Hachette and HarperCollins have changed their lending models to make it more expensive and restrictive for libraries to purchase eBooks and eAudiobooks.  Their licenses expire after a set number of uses or a time period, such as two years. 

One publisher has decided to implement a new model designed to severely limit public libraries from providing eBooks to their residents.  Beginning November 1, 2019, Macmillan Publishers allow libraries to purchase only one copy of each new eBook title for the first eight weeks after a book’s release.  In a letter from MacmIllan CEO John Sargent to librarians, he made the following case:

“We believe the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed e-books decreases the perceived economic value of a book. I know that you pay us for these e-books, but to the reader, they are free. … as libraries extend their reach statewide as well as nationally, it is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy. This is causing book-buying customers to change habits, and they are fueling the tremendous growth in e-book lending.”

Mr. Sargent’s letter was met with scorn in the library world.  It was seen as a disingenuous attempt to justify an unfair practice.  It is telling that his letter failed to include real data. He is not alone, in that publisher is willing to provide data to support their claims.  In fact, their list prices tell a different story.  


For example, according to the web site goodereader.com, an eBook copy of The Institute by best-selling author Stephen King costs $14.99 for the consumer, but $59.99 for a library.  That’s FOUR TIMES the price! Also, that library copy expires after two years. The library can only lend out the book to one person per license for a typically borrowing period of three to four weeks.  Given the price, most libraries can only order a few copies, but for a popular author like King it is not uncommon to have a virtual line of hundreds of hold requests for those few copies. The digital copies would expire long before the hold queues were satisfied.

Limiting the library’s access to eBooks has a disproportionate effect on those people of limited financial means.  Publishers assume they will generate more sales under this model. While that might be true in the short term, they risk losing readers in the long term who simply give up buying new books because they need to spend the money on life essentials.  Many people use libraries because it is cost prohibitive to buy new books.  This results in more library card holders queuing up for limited copies of popular titles, much like the long lines for Space Mountain on a busy Disney World weekend.

As well, many people will use libraries to test out new authors.  Libraries have long provided free marketing for authors through such basic methods as displaying their books and offering book discussions and author talks.  While famous authors like James Patterson and Daniel Steel live off their own reputations, new writers need every break they can get to be noticed. If the public can’t get access to a library copy, new authors may struggle to find readers willing to take a chance on them.

Equally important, eBooks are vital for a whole population that is often under served.  As the American Library Association states:

This embargo … particularly harms library patrons with disabilities or learning issues.  eBooks … can become large-print books with only a few clicks, and most eBook readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges. Because portable devices are light and easy to hold, eBooks are easier to use for some people who have physical disabilities.”


To learn more, check out the American Library Association advocacy site ebooksforall.org.  If you believe in public libraries, sign the petition while you are there.  As they state on the site:

“Here’s the truth: Limiting access to new titles for libraries means limiting access for readers like you.”

So, can you guess the name of the major publisher who refuses to sell eBooks to libraries?  Here’s a clue: It is a company that generated $232 Billion in revenue in 2018 and is the biggest seller of eBooks on the planet.

Now you know the world is turning upside down when Amazon.com considers libraries to be its competition.  Ponder that the next time you pay your Prime subscription.