A book battle has broken out at libraries here and across the nation.
As more readers download e-books from libraries instead of buying them, publishers are taking more aggressive steps to get more money from public libraries.
In June, Hachette Book Group – one of the Big Five publishers – began requiring libraries to buy an e-book again after it has circulated for two years, a change from before, when it placed no limits on how long the book could be checked out.
Then last month, MacMillan Publishers placed an embargo on its newly released e-books, allowing library systems to buy and circulate just one copy for the first eight weeks after an e-book has been released.
For patrons at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, where e-book circulation has more than doubled over 10 years, waiting to check out the publisher's best sellers would last months. The problem is more acute here than in other communities, because the Erie County library system's purchasing is centralized for all 37 of its libraries, local library officials said.
If the library system waits eight weeks to buy multiple copies of a new e-book from MacMillan, each copy would cost more – three to five times more than what a consumer would pay.
Take, for instance, the newly released suspense-romance fiction book by Nora Roberts, "Under Currents," and the autobiography "Me," by Elton John, both published by MacMillan brands. Both books are on sale in e-book and print versions to consumers for $11 to $15.
Under MacMillan's new policy, Buffalo & Erie County Public Library administrators say they have two options:
• Wait eight weeks and then buy multiple copies of these e-books at $60 per copy. The library system would gain the right to circulate each e-book copy for two years, after which the library would have to pay another $60 per e-book copy to keep it in circulation for another two years.
• Buy and circulate one copy of the newly released e-book right away, at a discounted cost of $30. That purchase would allow the system to circulate that single copy forever. But it would also mean initial wait times would explode since only a single copy would be available for all Erie County library patrons.
Libraries could also choose to buy one $30 copy of the book right away, then buy more $60 copies after eight weeks.
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library has opted to wait the eight weeks to circulate new MacMillan releases, said Director Mary Jean Jakubowski.
For smaller libraries, the MacMillan policy might not be particularly harmful, Jakubowski said. But for large library systems that order books as part of a centralized consortium, like the Erie County model, the impact is tremendous.
"We never have a request list that is going to force someone to wait six months for a book," Jakubowski said.
Major publishers already make popular e-books available to libraries at higher-than-market-rate costs. And they have increasingly placed restrictions on how long libraries can circulate e-books. Amazon will not sell any of its e-books to libraries at any price.
Jakubowski called MacMillan's strategy discriminatory. The availability of e-books has not only been a boon to readers accustomed to instant book delivery, but to readers with limited access to transportation and those with learning and visual disabilities.
"It's just shocking to me that we’re even having a conversation like this," said Erie County Legislator Lisa Chimera, a middle school English and special education teacher. "And, of course, it has to do with money."
Publishers protecting profits
The Erie County library system began offering e-books a decade ago for library patrons to read on their phones, tablets and laptops. Since then e-book circulation has more than doubled, while the library system's print book circulation has fallen.
The library system offers 83,000 copies of roughly 37,000 e-book titles. Compared to the county's circulating collection of 3 million items, that is not a lot. But with patron demand for e-books growing, the push to grow the county's e-book collection seems destined to grow.
Last year, the county library system circulated e-books more than half a million times, according to county library data.
As publishers have seen profits erode, they have adopted new strategies to require libraries to repeatedly pay for the same e-book, either after a certain period of time or after a certain number of checkouts.
MacMillan has pointed out that 45% of the e-book reads in the United States result from e-books borrowed from libraries.
Those library checkouts limited publisher revenue from circulated library e-books to under $2 per read, said MacMillan CEO John Sargent. That change in book-buying and reading habits could do serious, long-term harm to publishers, he said.
In an open letter to librarians, Sargent addressed the criticism against the company's new library sales policy.
"I realize the lack of availability in the first eight weeks will frustrate some e-book patrons, and that will make your jobs more difficult," he wrote. "Your patrons would be happy if they could get any book they wanted instantly and seamlessly, but that would be severely debilitating for authors, publishers, and retailers. We are trying to find a middle ground."
Librarians protesting policy
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system is working with the American Library Association to aggressively fight MacMillan's new policy.
MacMillan titles account for 5.6% of the library system's e-book collection. The e-book embargo does not affect the availability of print books, which libraries may buy and circulate for as long as they want.
But MacMillan makes up a greater percentage of new local library purchases. Through October of this year, MacMillan books accounted for 10% of the roughly 12,600 e-books the county bought.
"One of the reasons that libraries are taking a stand against this embargo is to really send a message to all the other publishers, 'Don’t go down this road,' " Jakubowski said.
The American Library Association, in response to a request from the House of Representatives' antitrust subcommittee, released a report in October denouncing revenue-generating tactics by companies like MacMillan and Amazon. It described the policies as a threat to "Americans’ right to read."
Chimera, the county legislator, said book access for county residents has always been important. Her resolution supporting the American Library Association's position against MacMillan passed unanimously.
"I think it’s a terrible practice," Chimera said of the embargo. "And it sends a terrible message to readers of all ages."