Libraries Respond to Macmillan Ebook Embargo with Boycotts, Advocacy

On November 1, Macmillan enacted its eight-week embargo period for new library ebook licenses. Many libraries have responded by announcing boycotts, as library organizations continue outreach and advocacy efforts.

ALA Representatives hold boxes of signed ebooks for all petitions in Zucotti Park, across Broadway from Macmillan's offices in ManhattanOn November 1, Macmillan enacted its eight-week embargo period for new library ebook licenses. Many libraries have responded by announcing boycotts, as library organizations continue outreach and advocacy efforts.

King County Library System (KCLS), WA, on October 18 became the first major system to announce a boycott of Macmillan ebooks. The library regularly ranks near the top of OverDrive’s annual checkout volume lists for North American library systems, circulating more than four million ebooks per year on the platform. With ebooks such a popular format at the busy system, KCLS Executive Director Lisa Rosenblum said that the decision to boycott was a difficult one, but ultimately, she decided it had to be done.

“It wasn’t, at first, a popular decision,” she told LJ. “I kept hearing from colleagues ‘it’s not going to work….’ But I felt that for the profession, we had a responsibility to put ourselves out there and make a stand. Not just for libraries across the country, but also for our public…. I felt that we wouldn’t be standing up for our public if we just accepted this.”

Macmillan is allowing all libraries and library systems to purchase a single one-user/one-ebook perpetual license at a discounted price when a new title is published. The embargo period applies to any additional, metered licenses that a library would purchase to meet demand. In his July 25 memo announcing the embargo, Macmillan CEO John Sargent wrote that these terms had been decided after discussions with “library systems large and small.” This policy probably will benefit many small libraries, but Rosenblum said that it is untenable for large urban systems or consortia.

Like many libraries, KCLS orders additional licenses for ebooks based on holds for a title, and “our queues are going to get so long” with only one copy available for two months, she said. “For us to keep up [with pent-up demand], we would immediately have to buy way more copies than we normally would do” following the embargo period. “That’s rewarding them for not selling to us.”

Rosenblum also argued that, intentionally or not, the policy “pits small libraries against big libraries. It’s terrible…. We don’t want the other big four publishers to do this.”

KCLS was soon joined by the Nashville Public Library (NPL) and the 18 member libraries of Ohio’s Digital Downloads Collaboration, including the Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML). More recently, the Sacramento Public Library, the Des Moines Public Library, and Monroe County Library System, NY, joined the boycott. Currently, all boycott participants are planning to continue purchasing print and audiobook copies of new Macmillan releases.

Some boycott participants, such as KCLS and Sacramento, have taken a hard line, declaring that their library systems will not buy new Macmillan ebook releases at all unless the embargo period is rescinded.

“Macmillan made a decision not to sell to us in a timely manner,” Rosenblum said. “They’re not performing satisfactorily for us, so we’re not buying this particular commodity…. We are not buying ebooks from Macmillan, period.”

Others, including CML, are boycotting the single one-user/one-ebook perpetual licenses available to libraries when new titles are published, partly due to the uncertainty of the situation and the needs of consortia, and partly in hopes that continued negotiations will ultimately soften Macmillan’s position. Two months after launch, once the embargo has expired, the boycott will be re-evaluated.

This will mitigate the problem that Rosenblum foresees in which holds lists skew later purchases, and will prevent frustration and confusion on the part of patrons seeing astronomical wait times for a single copy. Without holds lists, initial purchases of ebook licenses will almost certainly be much lower for front-list titles, even if the boycotts remain limited to 60 days. Because those titles will be undiscoverable in the ebook collections of these systems for two months after a new title’s release, there will likely be some localized impact on Macmillan’s marketing efforts for these titles in these libraries’ service areas.

Patrick Losinski, CEO of CML, explained that the library is watching the situation for further developments. “We don’t really know what, exactly, our position will be eight weeks from now,” he told LJ. “Part of what we need to do is monitor what other libraries might be planning to do, [and] what Macmillan might be planning to do as we get to the end of the eight-week period, and frankly, what the conversation might begin to be with other publishers as well.”

Ed Brown, public information representative for NPL, said that the library also planned to evaluate the results of the boycott after a few months.  “We set a spring 2020 date as a time to see how and if Macmillan reacts. In the spring, if nothing has changed, we’ll take a look again and see if we want to continue [the boycott] or what changes we want to make.”

CML and NPL have both published information about the embargo and related issues regarding ebook access on their websites, and Losinski and Brown said that staff are prepared for any questions from patrons.

So far, Sargent has expressed no signs of reconsidering. On November 4, in a meeting with ten state librarians and Timothy Cherubini, the executive director of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), Sargent reportedly expressed concern that “free” lending through libraries devalues new release ebooks in the view of consumers, and that he believes libraries are spending too much of their ebook budgets trying to keep up with demand for front-list titles, which may negatively impact institutional sales of Macmillan’s mid-list titles. Although he expressed a willingness to continue exploring pricing and licensing models for libraries, Sargent said he anticipates that sales lost to library boycotts will be offset by improved sales to consumers. However, many industry observers disagree.



Organizations including the American Library Association (ALA) and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) have continued working to raise awareness of the issue.

Last week, ULC announced that 77 mayors and county executives from cities throughout the United States, representing a service population of more than 40 million people, had signed the organization’s “Statement on Equitable Public Access to E-Books.” Written in partnership with the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, the statement outlines the current challenges libraries face with e-content, including “severe restrictions” to lending such as Macmillan’s embargo, as well as “unreasonably high prices, which far exceed the prices offered for print books.” These restrictions have the biggest impact on citizens “who already face significant barriers to equitable knowledge and information access in our communities—including youth, people living with disabilities, and those with limited financial means,” the statement explains.

Curtis Rogers, director of communications for ULC, said that the goal was “to send a message to all e-content publishers—especially Macmillan in response to the beginning of the embargo—that this issue of equitable and fair ebook access and pricing for libraries impacts entire communities. And we have the support of community leaders, mayors, and county executives, in demanding fair treatment from Macmillan and other publishers involved in this space…. We’re hoping that the reach and presence of these leaders will help draw public and media attention to the issue and keep the conversation going.”

In September, ALA set up an online petition demanding a cancellation of the embargo. On October 30, Alan Inouye, ALA’s senior director of public policy and government relations, was joined by Cherubini; Loida Garcia-Febo, ALA immediate past president; Sari Feldman, ALA policy fellow and past ALA president; Caroline Ashby, director, Nassau Library System; and Angie Miraflor, director of customer experience at Brooklyn Public Library, to personally deliver the petition with more than 160,000 signatures to Sargent at Macmillan’s offices in Manhattan.

During a brief gathering at LJ’s offices prior to the delivery, Inouye noted that the petition drive and ALA’s #eBooksForAll campaign was part of a significant public outreach effort within the field, with library directors and others submitting "literally hundreds" of op-eds to newspapers throughout the United States, as well as many segments on local news programs regarding the embargo.

“We know we’re on the right side,” Inouye said. “We have the public behind us. Making progress is still going to be a challenge. There’s still more work to be done. But today is an important milestone.”

Building support from the public and political leaders could prove to be vital, if publishers continue adopting policies that limit public access to this content. This year, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee launched a broad bipartisan investigation into competition in digital markets, and last month, ALA responded to a request for information, providing a report that detailed the challenges libraries face with ebooks and other digital content.

“At this point, Macmillan has driven a hard line,” Losinski said, adding that libraries may ultimately need a legislative remedy to ensure reasonable terms for library ebooks. “It’s unfortunate, because I think the public library community, the associations, and the publishers are going to face some significant legal bills” if the situation escalates to that point. “I would sure rather see all of those resources go toward supporting the publishing industry and purchasing library materials.”

CLARIFICATION (December 9, 2019): An earlier version of this article included Maryland’s Digital eLibrary Consortium as a boycott participant. Consortium officials contacted LJ to explain that it will continue to buy Macmillan ebooks. As a practical matter, the consortium is waiting until week seven of the embargo period to purchase the single perpetual licenses Macmillan is allowing all library systems to purchase during the embargo period. It will purchase additional copies as needed by the consortium after that.

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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