What a Library Embargo Is and Why You Should Fight It
[image description: an e-reader on top of a notebook, next to a black and white mug, on a wood table.]
It’d be nice if I could go more than a week or two without having to put on my ranty panties, but the publishing industry has other plans. At the rate we’re going, I’m going to have to buy a 10-pack of ranty panties just to keep myself supplied.
What’s got my ranty panties in a wad this week, you ask? Library embargoes.
A library embargo happens when a publisher decides that instead of seeing libraries as the engines for education and positive change they are, instead chooses to see them as leeches on the publishing industry. In this instance, MacMillan Publishers, one of the Big 5, seems to think having their ebooks in libraries is bad for business and is causing them to lose money. As such, they’re putting limits on how many copies of new ebooks libraries can purchase, which of course effects the wait times for patrons’ holds.
In a move that they mistakenly think will make them more money, MacMillan has decided to only sell one copy of a new release to a library in the first eight weeks of publication. And that’s not one copy per library… it’s one copy per library system. Which mean, for example, the Columbus Metropolitan Library where I have a card, would get ONE copy of a new release for all 23 locations. That means a single library system that serves a metro area of over 2 million people would only be able to lend out a single copy of a new ebook for the first eight weeks it was out.
MacMillan thinks this is going to increase sales of ebooks because it’ll incentivize readers to buy the ebook outright instead of waiting for it from their library. I don’t see how that’s possible for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, such a declaration only works if you assume libraries don’t actually buy the ebooks they lend out. But libraries spend a lot of money in the publishing industry, both buying individual hard copy titles and buying the licenses for ebooks, which, unlike hard copies, have limits on borrowing. If MacMillan is interested in selling more ebooks, they shouldn’t be limiting how many copies libraries can buy.
Secondly, I’m a power reader who both spends a lot of money buying books and borrowing from my library. If I’m only casually interested in a book and the wait time is horrendous or my library doesn’t have it, I just don’t end up reading it. There are so many books out there that if I can’t get one, I’m just going to move on to the next thing. And because there are so many books out there and I know that once a book is published it’s not going anywhere, it’s rare that I rush out to buy a new release, especially in the first eight weeks it’s out. So in my case and for the other readers like me, MacMillan is only hurting themselves and the authors they represent.
Thirdly, it makes no sense for a publisher to make an enemy of the library. Libraries are big spenders at publishing houses, especially since publishers jack up the price of ebook licenses for libraries knowing that copies will be loaned out. Publishers are particularly greedy with ebook licensing since borrowing is easier to police with ebooks than it is with physical books. Publishers aren’t going around accusing Little Free Libraries and secondhand bookstores of cannibalizing sales because surely they’d know that was an ignorant thing to do. The only reason they’re embargoing books for libraries is because they can.
If I were an author at MacMillan and one of my books had just been released and my publisher, who has an obligation to promote my book, as well as a business incentive to do so, was refusing to sell libraries the number of ebooks they wanted during the first eight weeks of release, I’d be PISSED. The first eight weeks of sales are the most important and often determine whether a book gets on bestseller lists. To intentionally discourage sales, especially during that crucial release window, doesn’t make sense.
Library embargoes are also classist. There will always be people who can’t afford new books and will end up not reading the book if they can’t buy it and can’t get it at their library when they’re interested in it. I don’t know a library patron yet who hasn’t placed a hold when they were interested in a book then had to wait so long they were no longer interested. That’s a scenario library embargoes are asking for.
Additionally, library embargoes are ableist. Since any book can become large print with a click and e-readers are lightweight, they’re a go-to for people with disabilities. To limit ebook access is to directly and explicitly take new books away from disabled people.
Nobody wins when publishers try to flex on libraries.
I personally think libraries should pull all MacMillan titles for the duration of the library embargo and tell patrons to direct their complaints to the CEO of MacMillan. I doubt that’ll happen because libraries want full access to information and ideas, not limited access, even to make a point. I think about it like I think about teacher strikes. No teacher wants to deny a child an education, even for a limited amount of time, but sometimes that’s what’s necessary to make the powers that be listen to you and equip you with the resources you need to serve your people.
However, this blog isn’t a library and therefore doesn’t strictly adhere to the values of libraries. I only promote books and publishers who, to the best of my knowledge, align with my values––which means not being asswipes to libraries and their patrons. I’m fully against library embargoes, so I’ll be thinking very carefully about whether to recommend books published by MacMillan on this platform.
I’m only one person and this is only one book blog, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t pull on my ranty panties and voice my dissent. Please stand up for libraries and sign the petition.