Macmillan Expands Library e-book Embargo

Information Access

By: Rebecca Slocum

Upon reading Macmillan’s recent news announcing their new e-book lending policy, I was pretty confused. Why are they limiting the number of e-books sold? More e-book copies purchased = more money for publishers, right? 

Yes, unless you could consider libraries to be competition in your retail sales, which Macmillan apparently does. Last summer, Macmillan unexpectedly announced a four-month embargo on all Tor (a Macmillan imprint) new release e-books in libraries. This embargo was to “test” whether library e-book lending is affecting retail e-book sales. Librarians, understandably, vehemently opposed this announcement. Tor is one of the major publishers of science fiction and fantasy books. Preventing readers from accessing these popular titles could have a negative impact on readers, especially young readers just entering the reading world.

covers of a few of the new Macmillan releases

Well, Macmillan must have seen an increase in their sales since they’re now expanding that embargo to include all of their e-books. Beginning November 1st, each library, regardless of the population of the community served, is allowed the purchase of one perpetual access e-book on its release date for a discounted price of $30. After eight weeks, libraries may then purchase additional e-book copies at regular price, $60; these copies then need to be renewed after 2 years or 52 lends, whichever comes first. And again, understandably, librarians are expressing their dissent

I guess their hope is that when library patrons see a hold list of 250+ for a single copy of the new bestseller, they’ll say “Forget it”, and go purchase the e-book from a retailer. From a strictly business perspective, I see their point. If a desired product isn’t available for free, patrons will be forced to pay for it. More e-book copies purchased = more money for publishers. Who cares how or why the book is purchased? 

However, from a librarian’s perspective, this decision seriously infringes on our intellectual freedom, especially the freedoms of those who rely upon the library for their access to information. Article I of the Library Bill of Rights states: 

“Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.”

For the interest, information, and enlightenment of all. As in everyone in the community. The library is not a privileged country club, where a patron can’t belong if they don’t pay their dues. They are a stronghold of information and learning; books and classes; socialization and inclusion. And these services are available for free, for the benefit and inclusion of all. Everyone. 

Looking at this from a personal perspective only heightens my concern. I’ll be honest: as a patron who regularly utilizes the library for reading e-books, this announcement does not have much of an impact on me. Note that I said utilize, not rely or depend on. If I truly wish to read a book and cannot wait for my name to come up on the hold list, the only thing from which I’ll suffer is frustration and annoyance. I can just hop online and buy the e-book. I have the privilege and luxury in my life to do so. However, I’m well-aware that many do not have the luxury of purchasing any book on a whim or purchasing any book at all. And it saddens me that any reader, adult or child, would not have the opportunity to develop a love of books and reading at the library the way I did. Should my access to information take precedent over others, simply because I can afford it? (Spoiler: the answer is no.) 

Everyone deserves equal access to libraries and all the materials within, but libraries are especially essential for those who otherwise do not have access to books. The homeless, students, families living in poverty: the people that fit into this category are myriad and diverse. And what’s more is that we probably don’t know everyone who depends solely on the library for access to information, because who wants to admit that? No matter who we are; what we look like; where we come from; how much money we make; we are all people of this country, this democracy. And in a democracy, we are expected to be self-governors, to learn about the world around us. How can we expect the people of this country to make informed decisions regarding elected leaders, policies, and people, if companies like Macmillan are creating a barrier to information access? The victims here are the very people who would benefit most from open and equal access to the library and its materials. 

Now, I understand that Macmillan is a privately owned company, and they can certainly do what they want when it comes to selling their books. And I understand that the goal of a business is to make money. However, one of the first steps to selling your product is some form of marketing; if you want people to buy it, you first have to convince them your product is worth them spending their money. You want people to buy your slow-roasted, artisan coffee blend? Let them sample it. You want people to buy your painstakingly handmade clothing? Show them examples of your work or let them try it on. You want people to buy the book you have carefully selected, edited, and guided into publication. Let them read it. Think of the library as the sample platform. The publisher might not be getting the potential retail sales from those privileged enough to purchase their e-books, but they’re doing something much more important. They’re investing in a new generation of readers, a new generation of ideas, and, hey, maybe even a new generation of loyal customers.

Rebecca Slocum

Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.


  • An excellent article, unfortunately relaying more sad news.

    However, I feel that there is a major error – in most cases libraries do not ‘purchase’ e-books, but license access to them (thus, at most purchase licenses). Even ‘perpetual access’ is not a purchase, but a license. Solely when there is transfer of the electronic file to the library can we talk of ‘purchase’. This is not a minor linguistic issue, but an an important difference in how we and, more importantly, the public at large understand the issues and dangers that come with the move from library purchasing to libraries licensing access.

  • Just to be clear- the Macmillan terms are as follows “We will make one copy of your ebook available to each library system in perpetuity upon publication. Additional copies of that title will not be available for library purchase until 8 weeks after publication.”

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