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E-publishing rules could fetter access to material 

Book Ends?

click to enlarge Those with disabilities could be among the affected. - TIERNEYMJ / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • TierneyMJ / Shutterstock.com
  • Those with disabilities could be among the affected.

For centuries, libraries and publishers have worked hand-in-hand, says John Spears, the Pikes Peak Library District’s chief librarian and CEO.

Now, Spears and other librarians around the country feel that relationship could be in jeopardy.

What’s changed? Recent decisions by national publishers may make it more difficult for libraries to purchase e-books and e-audiobooks — and the libraries aren’t happy.

Starting Nov. 1, Macmillan Publishers  — one of the largest publishing companies in the country — will allow libraries to purchase just one copy of an e-book in the first two months after it’s released. (Libraries can buy that single copy at half the usual price and keep it forever.) After the first two months, they’ll be charged the full price of $60 for any additional copies, which will expire after two years.

According to a July memo from Macmillan CEO John Sargent, the changes were a response to the publisher’s “growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales.”

“For Macmillan, 45% of the ebook reads in the US are now being borrowed for free from libraries,” Sargent wrote. “And that number is still growing rapidly. The average revenue we get from those library reads (after the wholesaler share) is well under two dollars and dropping, a small fraction of the revenue we share with you on a retail read.”

Spears calls that philosophy misguided. He points out that research has shown people who check out books at the library are more likely to also buy books.

Borrowing books lets library patrons “explore new authors, explore new genres and really develop a love of reading” that may later influence them to buy a book, he argues. Plus, publishers normally charge libraries around four times what an individual would pay to purchase an e-book.

It’s not just Macmillan: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster and Hachette Book Group have all recently instituted policies that mean libraries will have to re-purchase e-book copies every two years. Some have also included e-audiobooks in the changes.

But given that Macmillan’s new policy would have the most drastic effects, the American Library Association last month introduced an online petition at eBooksForAll.org urging Macmillan not to implement the changes. As of Oct. 19, that petition had amassed more than 125,000 signatures.

“With limited library budgets, it is understandable that librarians are upset about changes in terms that make it more costly for them to build and maintain their lending collections,” Jill Smith, director of the Denver Publishing Institute, says in an emailed statement. However, “publishers need to generate revenue in order to publish books.”

“When publishers require an e-book to be repurchased after a certain duration of time, or after a certain number of lends, they are trying to match when a library would be replacing a physical book that has worn out,” Smith points out. “I think an interesting question is whether they did allow a book to be checked out in perpetuity, would they need to increase the upfront cost even more to account for the replacement value.”

Spears, though, says making e-books more expensive will ultimately hurt marginalized groups — such as the homebound, and people with disabilities — who can’t access physical books. Deployed service members, too, frequently use the library’s e-book collection.

“It really does get down to an equity of access issue,” he says.

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