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Libraries angry over publisher's limit on library e-books to boost sales

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IOWA CITY — Librarians in the Corridor are up in arms over a new licensing model instituted by a major publisher that limits e-book lending to library patrons.

While only one publisher has announced this licensing model, library staff say others could follow and as a result sharply limit access to e-books for the public.

“The implications could be really large for the future of libraries to be able to continue to purchase e-books,” said Dara Schmidt, director of the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

In July, Macmillan Publishing announced a more restrictive licensing model for its new e-books starting last Friday.

When Macmillan releases a new book, libraries will be allowed to purchase only one copy during the first eight weeks of its release. Before the policy, libraries could purchase multiple copies of e-books from the publisher, allowing multiple patrons to check out the digital books at the same time. Licensing models prevent multiple users from accessing the same e-book at the same time, requiring libraries to purchase multiple copies of popular titles.

Last July, Publishers Weekly obtained a “confidential” memo that Macmillan Chief Executive Officer John Sargent wrote to the imprint’s writers and agents explaining the change. He wrote that e-books were fast growing in popularity but complained that readers were not buying them enough, thereby limiting “the revenue we share with you.”

“It seems that given a choice between a purchase of an e-book for $12.99 or a frictionless lend for free, the American e-book reader is starting to lean heavily toward free,” he wrote.

So far, Macmillan Publishing is the only publisher to announce this licensing model.

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“Macmillan Publishers’ new model for library e-book lending will make it difficult for libraries to fulfill our central mission: ensuring access to information for all,” said Wanda Brown, president of the American Library Association, in a statement. “Macmillan’s new policy is unacceptable.”

In Johnson County, the change means readers at three libraries — Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty — will have to wait for a single copy of new e-books released by Macmillan. The libraries shared e-books through a partnership called Digital Johnson County.

“It means longer waits,” said Melody Dworak, a librarian at the Iowa City Public Library. “They can’t get the book they want. They might be forced to buy the book. I get a little dramatic about it because it upsets me so much.”

Using Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, “Becoming” as an example, Dworak said Digital Johnson County was able to purchase 22 e-book copies from publisher Random House. In less than a year, those e-books have been checked out 479 times, Dworak said. Under Macmillan’s model, Digital Johnson County would have been able to purchase only one e-book in the first two months after its release.

“The bestsellers are really where people are going to feel that pain,” she said.

Dworak said libraries don’t feel as if they have many options beyond apologizing to their patrons and signing a petition circulated by the national association and addressed to Macmillan.

The Cedar Rapids Public Library is taking some action, however. In addition to promoting the association’s ebooksforall.org website on social media channels for information on concerns over the licensing model, the Cedar Rapids library will no longer purchase any e-books from Macmillan, Schmidt said.

“I wouldn’t say we’re boycotting,” Schmidt said. “We’re still going to purchase physical books (from Macmillan). We’re not going to purchase e-books because that is not the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

That means when Nora Roberts’ new book comes out at the end of November, the Cedar Rapids Public Library will have physical copies on hand, but patrons won’t be able to check it out as an e-book.

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Schmidt said — of the e-books purchased by the Cedar Rapids Public Library — Macmillan titles make up only about 6 percent. Penguin and Random House titles, on the other hand, make up half the library’s e-book catalog.

“If this were a different publisher, this could more significantly impact our patrons,” she said. “We absolutely have a concern where one publisher goes, others may follow. If this is something libraries just accept as a new business model, what’s to stop others from doing it in the future?”

Schmidt is hopeful a larger conversation about e-book licensing will lead to federal regulation in the next six to 12 months. In the meantime, she recommends patrons visit ebooksforall.org for more information. The website also call on patrons to register their protests.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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