Macmillan Ends Library Ebook Embargo

Macmillan yesterday announced that it would discontinue its embargo period, which had prohibited libraries from purchasing ebook licenses for newly published titles for eight weeks.

Macmillan logo (two wavy, stylized letterMacmillan yesterday announced that it would discontinue its embargo period, which had prohibited libraries from purchasing ebook licenses for newly published titles for eight weeks. In a short letter addressed to “librarians, authors, illustrators, and agents” on March 17, Macmillan CEO John Sargent suggested that the publisher’s decision was partly due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on libraries—many of which have been forced to close and emphasize resources accessible offsite, such as ebooks and streaming media.

“There are times in life when differences should be put aside,” Sargent wrote. “Effective on Friday [March 20]…Macmillan will return to the library ebook pricing model that was in effect on October 31, 2019. In addition, we will be lowering some ebook prices on a short-term basis to help expand libraries’ collections in these difficult times. Stay safe.”

A spokesperson from Macmillan confirmed to LJ that the embargo would also be discontinued, stating in an email that “all ebook licenses will now be available to purchase starting on publication date, beginning Friday, March 20, or as soon as wholesalers can accommodate the change.”

Macmillan began enforcing the embargo on November 1 last year, to channel library borrowers toward retail ebook sales during the weeks following a books launch, Sargent explained during an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A session at the 2020 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia this January.

“Think about when a movie releases,” Sargent said. “When are you willing to put down $18 to see something?... The first six weeks, four weeks, or three weeks. That’s true of all intellectual property. Its highest [commercial] value is when it’s new.”

Yet he also acknowledged that the embargo had been costly for Macmillan, and indicated that the publisher would be willing to explore different licensing and pricing models that could eliminate the embargo for libraries.

“Of the reads in America today at Macmillan, 55 percent of the people who read our books electronically [are borrowing them] from the library,” Sargent said. For new titles “we’ve basically turned off 55 percent of our customers. So in the initial eight weeks? Bad news for us financially.”



These lost sales to libraries may have led the publisher to explore other options. Earlier this month, Macmillan sought input from a small group of libraries on three ebook licensing proposals that would presumably have offered an alternative to the embargo. The news was originally reported by Michael Blackwell, director of the St. Mary’s County Public Library, MD, and an organizer of the ReadersFirst coalition, and confirmed by Publishers Weekly on March 6. Macmillan officials did not speak publicly about the models, or disclose which libraries were selected for input. Blackwell also did not disclose his sources.

The three proposals included:

  • A metered by circ model that would have increased the price per ebook license to $80 on new titles the first eight weeks after publication
  • A pay-per-use model that would have charged up to $10.49 per circ for new titles within eight weeks of publication
  • A model that would have sold libraries time-limited bundles of circs, priced at a premium during the first eight weeks following an ebook’s publication

During a conversation with LJ last week, Blackwell commended Macmillan for putting forward alternate models, and argued that “no single model works” for libraries. For example, he noted, many small libraries were pleased that Macmillan had begun offering libraries a single one-user/one-ebook perpetual license when the embargo was launched. This type of model works well for libraries that don’t have high ebook circulation numbers, but will quickly result in untenable holds lists for consortia or large urban systems. He also said that many libraries have come to appreciate the HarperCollins model, in which libraries pay cost per use up front for metered ebook licenses that expire after a circ limit is reached, rather than a time limit.

In a March 17 blog post discussing the embargo’s discontinuation, Blackwell notes that the reversal could signal Macmillan’s willingness to explore new licensing models, writing that “we at [Readers First] Working Group hope that we might move from a two-year time-bound license to a circulation-based license (say 40 circulations at a set price?) for metered access. Please consider adding a one copy/one user perpetual access license, if only a year after a title is published and demand is lower, or even only on a backlist, but ideally up front. It would be worth a higher cost than the metered licenses, but many in our group say we would often get it, even as we also used metered access when meeting high initial demand.”

For now, many libraries were pleased to see the end of the embargo period, which has been a point of contention between Macmillan and campaigns such as ALA’s #eBooksForAll in recent weeks.

“Equitable access to digital content is more important than ever as libraries continue to serve their communities amid rapidly changing circumstances,” said ALA Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Alan Inouye. “Macmillan’s return to its original lending terms signals a new starting point for all publishers to consider how they can work with libraries to ensure—and expand—access for all readers. ALA looks forward to working with publishers to make that happen.”

Update: King County Library System, WA, on March 18 announced that it would end its boycott of Macmillan's ebooks, which had gone into effect with the publisher's embargo

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Matt Enis


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

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