eBook Embargo on Libraries is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

photo-1505664194779-8beaceb93744Pauline Loroy

An Essay by J. Paul Duplantis                                                                                                             

As of November 1st, 2019 MacMillan Publishing, one of the largest print publishers in the world, placed an 8-week embargo on libraries purchasing more than one copy of new release eBooks limiting an entire branch to loan out one eBook at a time to library patrons. This coupled with the publishing community beginning to limit perpetual access to eBooks and audiobooks, in general, should serve as a warning for what is about to come with the continued siloing and commoditization of information. A new reality favoring publishers and aggregators over creators and consumers closing in not only on the expressions of authors but the reportage of journalists, songs of artists, and the visions of filmmakers.

As much as I like my Netflix subscription and my son likes his Spotify subscription, I have to wonder what the future will bring when important news stories and creative expressions are fenced-in through subscription models and exclusive content deals priced out of reach of the average wage earner. Is there any doubt the total cost of information consumption will rise as more information providers climb on board the gravy train of the subscription model? Consumer choice limited to which silo to choose rather than which creator of information to choose. The flow of information limited at the expense of the consumer. Sound familiar? 

So when a top-five international book publisher picks a fight with 138,000 librarians over an 8-week release window, one has to wonder if this is the canary in the coal mine warning of what is to come. In an open letter to librarians, MacMillan publishing CEO John Sargent offered, “We believe the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed e-books decreases the perceived economic value of a book,” and “To borrow a book in those days required transportation, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forgot to get them back on time. In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market.”

Apparently perception and friction are the drivers aligning authors’ hard work with the interests of consumers in this new era of connectivity? Not to discount the necessity of profitability but when profit begins to step on discovery how will the consumer and the publishing industry not suffer? Yes, there is a scalability issue for publishers in consumers checking out a free eBook through a library portal online rather than physically picking up a book from a local library but is this the fight to pick to prove a point? A fight with a community of highly engaged readers who have shown in studies to purchase books after reading at the library.

(“50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library.” Patron Profiles, 2011)

I don’t believe this is a fight that will be won by either side. Maybe a better use of resources and time would be for publishers to spend more time experimenting with rental models, previewing sections based on reader interests, and better ad models to capture the interest of the reader against native content. It would be hard to argue growth in eBook sales over the years has met industry expectations but is the stagnation more about pirated content or a lack of innovation? This push by publishers to squeeze libraries over eBook sales leads me to believe the issue is with the latter which is also a reflection on the current information ecosystem as a whole. 

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A system incorporating conventional tactics of provider controls over a rapidly evolving connection allowing the user to expect more. This dissonance between publishers/aggregators and creators/consumers is what we are facing today limiting the reach of information to positively impact the whole of society. Will the Macmillan publishing companies of the world continue to talk or begin to listen to help right this ship? The Titanic missed the enormity of a situation as most of the threat was hidden from plain sight from a distracted crew. Are information publishers/aggregators about to make the same mistake?

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