Heather Schwedel, Slate:
If I wanted to borrow A Better Man by Louise Penny—the country’s current No. 1 fiction bestseller—from my local library in my preferred format, e-book, I’d be looking at about a 10-week waitlist. And soon, if the book’s publisher, a division of Macmillan, has its way, that already-lengthy wait time could get significantly longer.
In July, Macmillan announced that come November, the company will only allow libraries to purchase a single copy of its new titles for the first eight weeks of their release—and that’s one copy whether it’s the New York Public Library or a small-town operation that’s barely moved on from its card catalog. This has sparked an appropriately quiet revolt. Librarians and their allies quickly denounced the decision when it came down, and now the American Library Association is escalating the protest by enlisting the public to stand with libraries by signing an online petition with a populist call against such restrictive practices.
The controversy over Macmillan’s new policy gets at one of the central issues facing book publishing today. “There’s a tension in e-book pricing generally between consumer expectations that a digital file will be less expensive than a physical copy and the reality that very little of the cost of making a book is tied up in the physical format,” said Devin McGinley, a senior industry analyst covering book publishing for Ibisworld Inc., a market research firm. “Publishers are rightly concerned that if the price of books erodes too much, they will no longer be able to cover their creative costs and subsidize more speculative bets on emerging authors.”
Still, the library side pushed back at Macmillan’s singling out of libraries and assertion that e-book lending was driving consumer reluctance to pay up. Macmillan claimed to have tried out the eight-week embargo with one of its imprints, Tor, but declined to share the results publicly. “They really did not have any reasonable data to support a narrative that if an author’s new book is withheld from public library lending when it first comes out, that might impact the author’s or the book’s sales during those first few months,” Potash said. “That isn’t borne out. The data that OverDrive has is that for every title that actually gets borrowed or downloaded, the library is engaging with dozens and dozens of readers who are discovering the book, sampling the book, or just looking for a recommendation on what to read next.” Potash said that studies consistently show library patrons to be more frequent book buyers overall—which is another reason Macmillan’s letter stung. “They are taking their readers, their customers, their fans, and intentionally trying to frustrate them,” he said.
With the petition, an extraordinary step in this world, you could argue that Macmillan’s plan is already backfiring, having angered one of its major constituencies. And if the change bears out, there’s the possibility of bigger trouble for the publisher ahead: “Macmillan has a minor e-book market share compared with the other Big Five publishers, so if it is the only publisher to pursue this strategy, it may hurt the publisher’s sales to libraries while causing relatively little inconvenience to library patrons,” McGinley said. Patrons might find, when loading up their e-readers and apps, that there are more than enough non-Macmillan books out there to go around.