Libraries Battle Over eBooks
September 11, 2019 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Publisher Macmillan announced a new policy for eBooks: libraries can only buy one copy for the first eight weeks of a release, which can only be lent to one person at a time. This is the latest in licensing struggles libraries face in eBooks. The American Library Association (ALA) has chosen to push back, announcing a petition for eBooks for All.
posted by MrGuilt (50 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
This seems weird because my understanding was that ebooks were already pretty expensive for libraries. THis doesn't seem like a way to make more money. I wonder if this is really about sales numbers or something.
posted by GuyZero at 10:38 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


*Macmillan
posted by ominous_paws at 10:50 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


And yep, it seems like it must be a way to drive chart placement more than anything, to get as many people as might possibly buy rather than loan in the first six weeks. I guess it makes most obvious sense for super established authors? Would he really interesting to see actual numbers.
posted by ominous_paws at 10:54 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


At what point are ebook publishers going to realize the choice is between reasonable ebook library lending policies (which this sure as fuck isn't) and... ebook piracy? Come on.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:12 AM on September 11 [34 favorites]


"How can we take the freemium model and apply it to libraries" feels like the MO here.
posted by hijinx at 11:13 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


Is there anything morally wrong with putting yourself on the wait list for a library ebook; downloading, reading and deleting a pirated copy; and then taking out and quickly returning the ebook when it comes your turn? My mental model of how morality and "digital property" are supposed to interface is totally broken at this point.
posted by chortly at 11:16 AM on September 11 [18 favorites]


If every pirate eBook just had a donation PayPal (or alternative mechanism) direct to the authors, they would probably receive a **lot** more than the total income from the (immoral) scheme being proposed.
posted by goinWhereTheClimateSuitsMyClothes at 11:20 AM on September 11 [7 favorites]


As a disabled person, this really irks me—I have a very difficult time leaving the house and rely on my Libby app and e-books from the library, rather than physical trips. They allow me library access in the small windows when I’m feeling well and prevent me from racking up overdue fines when I can’t leave the house to make returns. Library e-books are being treated as a luxury when, for some of us, they’re a necessity.
posted by epj at 11:22 AM on September 11 [53 favorites]


Ultimately I guess that takes control out of the hands of the copyright owner; I don't feel its functionally different from pirating first and then... NOT renting it very quickly from the library? Which you can feel a number of ways about, I'm not even sure myself.

As ever I wish I had interesting amounts of data here... I'm sure that this will absolutely lead to a bump in piracy among the mefi usership, but meaningfully among the general population? No idea.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:25 AM on September 11


My mental model of how morality and "digital property" are supposed to interface is totally broken at this point.

So are most publishers' models, frankly.
posted by halation at 11:34 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


epj, not to deter from the primary ebook conversation, but if you haven't already done so please contact your local public library about home library services. Many public libraries in the US have services for those who cannot physically visit the library such as allowing a patron to borrow materials via the US Postal Service.
posted by montbrarian at 11:39 AM on September 11 [24 favorites]


Less-flippantly, this sucks and we should all hate it. The situation is even worse when it comes to people who need more accessible versions of texts. There's a push by many publishers to burnish their reputations by offering 'accessible' ebooks that really just lock people into a walled garden -- a walled garden that doesn't work with screen readers, mind you.

Some textbook publishers, like Pearson, now refuse to provide accessible copies of texts to people who have bought them and can't use them -- used to be, students could request (or have a disability/accessibility admin person request) an accessible file after buying a print copy. Now, Pearson is making people use VitalSource, and smugly saying it's accessible, so they don't have to provide this service anymore, and won't. (Spoiler: it's not that accessible. It does have a very basic in-built screen-reader function, but it won't work for a lot of people.)

As ever I wish I had interesting amounts of data here... I'm sure that this will absolutely lead to a bump in piracy among the mefi usership, but meaningfully among the general population? No idea.

A great thing about ebooks is their accessibility... and a lot of publishers are working to take that away, or greatly limit it. I can only assume this will push people into piracy out of necessity, if they're no longer able to read even books that they're paying for.
posted by halation at 11:40 AM on September 11 [18 favorites]


Sure, I'm just thinking more of technical ability than morality. God help my mum if she decided to try and pirate anything, for example.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:44 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


a lot of publishers are working to take that away, or greatly limit it

But they all use Adobe Digital Editions as the underlying ebook DRM, so their success is tied to Adobe's ability to release a bug-free, secure product. I'm not super worried.
posted by ryanrs at 12:15 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


RE: book piracy. Unlike other media an ebook is so small that hosting and serving the content isn't a burden that you need to offset via schemes like torrenting. They can be hosted on practically any document sharing service. 10's of thousands of books will fit on a thumbnail sized memory card. There are several sites out there where you can just download any ebook you might want and sideloading books on my Nook via Calibre is actually easier than using Kobo's native software.

Coming down hard on library users is just going to push those people to a) pirate your product and spread the pirated product to everyone they know and b) encourage those consumers to do business with your competitors. If libraries can buy your books they are going to buy someone else's books and patrons are going to read the books they have available to them.
posted by Mitheral at 12:40 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


Previously
posted by mbrubeck at 12:58 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Still no Linux client for Adobe Digital Editions, FYI, which was how I used to read ebooks legally. Le sigh, le weep, le moan.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 1:03 PM on September 11


Part of what makes this absurd is the basic numbers - my library serves a community of 50,000 people, and yet they can only have one copy?
posted by epanalepsis at 1:15 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


Yeah, this is a problem in Canada as well. From eContentForLibraries:

Demand for eAudiobooks is skyrocketing, but major multinational publishers aren’t making a number of best-selling titles available to Canadian public libraries – including some prominent Canadian and Indigenous works.

[...]

Another issue libraries face is excessively high prices and restrictive purchasing models for eAudiobooks and eBooks. Libraries lend digital copies just like physical books — on a one-to-one basis. But the prices we pay for digital copies are exponentially higher.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:27 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


From the Slate article:
"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.”
posted by PhineasGage at 1:31 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I don't particularly expect the ebook to be cheaper than the physical copy, but it's pretty frustrating to go on Amazon, as I did this afternoon in search of books by a particular author, and find that the physical book is $10 but the ebook is $22.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:40 PM on September 11 [19 favorites]


Is there anything morally wrong with putting yourself on the wait list for a library ebook; downloading, reading and deleting a pirated copy; and then taking out and quickly returning the ebook when it comes your turn?

No. Actually if we're talking MacMillan and Pearson there's nothing morally wrong with just flat out stealing them, because they're horrid horrid jerk fuckers and the sooner they collapse the sooner OER can be a real thing.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:14 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


very little of the cost of making a book is tied up in the physical format

I think that this is more than a little disingenuous. Some of the cost at least is tied up in that, and almost ALL the cost of distributing and shelving a book is tied up in physicality. It is obscene that digital copies should cost more than a fraction of print. I have no idea of how to still reasonably compensate publishers and authors in light of what I just said, but making bad-faith statements just stinks. Digital changes everything, I mean, really, everything.
posted by Chitownfats at 2:15 PM on September 11 [8 favorites]


Wasn't the internet going to make information free or something?
posted by xammerboy at 2:21 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


“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.”

What librarians are objecting to as I understand it is the pricing for a single digital copy that will be lent out on the same one-to-one basis as a print copy -- it's much HIGHER that of the same print copy.

From the Slate piece:

Publishers set the price, and libraries sometimes pay two to three times the retail price of e-books to acquire them. This price includes permission for libraries to lend the books out over the coming years—usually to one person at a time, despite the digital nature of the files—and acknowledges that the e-book will never get lost or wear out like a print book. Some publishers have policies that include metered access, meaning that after the book is either borrowed a certain number of times or a certain length of time passes, libraries must repurchase the title.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:22 PM on September 11 [9 favorites]


Having digital copies expire so they sorta mimic the physical wear on the dead tree version is just one of the most brain-dead examples of desperately hanging onto an obsolete business model in the face of change. And there's no shortage of those in the publishing industry.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 2:29 PM on September 11 [17 favorites]


very little of the cost of making a book is tied up in the physical format

I think that this is more than a little disingenuous


I mean, it depends on the product, but not reaaaaaaaally?

(not that I know as someone who will sweat over pennies on physical book costs that turn out to be meaninglessly tiny in comparison to acquisition and marketing costs, no sir)
posted by ominous_paws at 2:42 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Yeah, fuck Macmillan. I happily use my library's digital services and I don't even mind waiting in line for arbitrarily limited access to an e-book, as stupid as that model is, because I assume that *eventually* publishers will figure their shit out. This publisher is decidedly not figuring their shit out, so for Macmillan at least, piracy seems like the right response.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 2:43 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


I love libraries, and take my kids to my local library once a week. [end boiler-plate disclaimer before a contrary opinion]

But, if you love an author so much that you track the release dates of their book, and need to read them as soon as they come out then you really should buy their book. This is a strongly held opinion of mine that pre-dates ebooks.

There are a lot of messed up things about how the publishing industry handles ebook lending, but the specific policy of limited copies available for lending to prompt the most loyal fans to pay for a book instead of borrowing it, does not strike me as being nearly the worst.

In particular, this policy seems at least partly aimed at the large libraries that sell access to their digital collections (e.g. Toronto and Brooklyn both do this for ~$100 / year).
posted by 3j0hn at 2:43 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I meant to qualify that a little more:

... but the specific policy of limited copies available for lending during the release window to prompt the most loyal fans to pay for a book ...
posted by 3j0hn at 2:56 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


“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.”

Those emerging authors have been publishing online for five years now and do not necessarily need the publishers anyways. Given the number of patrons that ask me for CreateSpace titles, I've been lobbying for the library to just get a bunch of Kindles and loan them out. Of course, this involves the library dealing with Amazon, but who are you to deny grandma access to her Amish werewolf romance?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:06 PM on September 11 [8 favorites]


BTW, since ebook catalogs vary a ton from library system to library system, there are groups of people that trade ebooks and even library cards with each other, to get into the choicest online libraries. Hennepin county is very good, as is King county, Seattle, New York, LA, and some others.

Yes Metafilter, there really is a loosely organized group of cyberpunk librarians out there, breaking DRM and trading working library card numbers.
posted by ryanrs at 4:41 PM on September 11 [13 favorites]


>Is there anything morally wrong with putting yourself on the wait list for a library ebook; downloading, reading and deleting a pirated copy; and then taking out and quickly returning the ebook when it comes your turn?

>>No. Actually if we're talking MacMillan and Pearson there's nothing morally wrong with just flat out stealing them, because they're horrid horrid jerk fuckers and the sooner they collapse the sooner OER can be a real thing.


I say yes, but only because it might hurt the library. Some publishers have policies where they will "sell' an ebook to a library, but only allow it to be circulated a limited number of times (e.g. HarperCollins).
posted by Pink Frost at 5:16 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


OTOH, high circulation numbers can be helpful at budget time.
posted by ryanrs at 5:27 PM on September 11


if you love an author so much that you track the release dates of their book, and need to read them as soon as they come out then you really should buy their book.
None of this is more than tangentially related to popular publishing. Literally no one loves single-subject textbook authors enough to do this, and that is what Macmillan publishes.

only because it might hurt the library.
I was encouraging people to steal them directly from the publishers.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:30 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Publishers have been fighting for over a century to require 1 purchase = 1 reader. They've latched on to digital books as a way of killing the secondhand book market, because they're entirely oblivious to the fact that nobody learned to love books by reading nothing but new books.

Libraries may start loaning out Kindles instead of ebooks, and each Kindle could have dozens of books on it. They'd just have to be careful with account info and passwords, so that someone couldn't buy books while they've borrowed a device.

There was some talk of this early in the ebook licensing wars, and some publishers--and sometimes Amazon--tried to claim it was a violation of the TOS to loan out the physical device you read ebooks on. ("This book is licensed to YOU ONLY..." ) Amazon, IIRC, declined to answer questions like, "Can I loan my ereader to my spouse?"

The legal issues are probably going to be caught in licensing hell for quite a while, but as far as ethics go: Treat it like a physical book. You can loan it to someone as long as you don't use it while it's loaned out. And if publishers would just treat ebooks like pbooks and let people transfer them between accounts, they'd have a much better argument to fight piracy.

As it stands, the idea is that, every penny you've spent on ebooks goes up in smoke when you die. There is no way to transfer ownership to your heirs; ebooks are supposed to be ephemeral entertainment, not resources. It's like they want you to burn your library after you're done reading it.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:39 PM on September 11 [17 favorites]


If my local library had a program where I could pay a fee in the neighborhood of $50-$100 per year, and be able to check out ebooks whenever I wanted without having to wait, I would do it in a hot second.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:48 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Unlike other media an ebook is so small that hosting and serving the content isn't a burden that you need to offset via schemes like torrenting. They can be hosted on practically any document sharing service.

Due to a quirk of the respective file formats, a given file can be both a zip file and a jpeg image at the same time. This means that you can also host ebooks on any image host that doesn't re-encode your images. There were semi-regular ebook threads on a certain disreputable image-centric message board that took advantage of this, back when I spent time there.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 5:55 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


None of this is more than tangentially related to popular publishing. Literally no one loves single-subject textbook authors enough to do this, and that is what Macmillan publishes.

Is there more than one Macmillan? The article references Macmillan publishing a fiction bestseller, so it doesn't seem like they're strictly an educational publisher.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:45 PM on September 11


Macmillan also owns Tor/Forge. Tor was part of the experiment mentioned in the "previously" link above.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:47 PM on September 11


Macmillan is one of the big five trade publishers so they publish a ton of popular books, including the first example given in the article. I am a librarian and I don’t like this approach, but I am also an author and I do not think that downloading from pirate sites is morally defensible either—pirating does hurt authors, not just publishers and using pirate sites is kind of a crummy thing to do.
posted by pie_seven at 7:12 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Wasn't the internet going to make information free or something?

Are you thinking of the phrase "information wants to be free"? The phrase is often misunderstood to be a manifesto but it is actually merely an observation like "cats will assume the shape of their container. Not advocating for anything but merely observing that in an age of low/zero cost digital transmission information of any sort will tend to be widely distributed and available at low/no cost.

And it's true as far as books go. Nearly any book you've heard of published in the last 15-20 years is available for "free"/available at no monetary cost if you know where to look and don't mind infringing copyright.
posted by Mitheral at 7:19 PM on September 11


Is there more than one Macmillan?
Sorry, I was thinking of Pearson, who is trying something similar with their textbook line.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:00 AM on September 12


> epanalepsis: Part of what makes this absurd is the basic numbers - my library serves a community of 50,000 people, and yet they can only have one copy?

This is what makes this policy less of a business model and more of an extortion scheme. By completely ignoring the fact that different sized libraries need different quantities of books, Macmillan is essentially announcing that they no longer wish to do business with libraries. It's a blatant attempt to end ebook lending (and probably a trial run for ending book lending altogether). As someone who works in a library, I probably can't officially recommend piracy, but I think I will end this sentence with the observation that there are all sorts of ways to financially support the authors you read.

It reminds me of nothing so much as gerrymandering electoral districts or proroguing Parliament. Macmillan has realized that they can't win the game, so they are attempting to tear up the rulebook.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:33 AM on September 12 [5 favorites]


As pointed out by Publishers Marketplace (industry newsletter),
We asked the ALA when they would focus their earnest efforts on the largest publisher -- and indeed the largest corporation -- that does outright deny patrons any access, ever, to their ebooks or digital audiobooks. That would be Amazon, publisher of books by Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, Sylvia Day, Alison Winn Scotch, Gregg Olsen, Luanne Rice, Jennifer Probst, Robert Dugoni, T.R. Ragan, Barry Eisler, and others, and the largest audiobook publisher in the world. Despite Amazon's draconian policy, public libraries also support the company in harvesting vast amounts of data about patrons' reading habits through the Kindle ecosystem.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:21 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


By completely ignoring the fact that different sized libraries need different quantities of books, Macmillan is essentially announcing that they no longer wish to do business with libraries.

I think the choice of 1 copy for the first 8 weeks is actually even kind of more sneaky than just we don't want to deal with you. If you log onto your library system and they don't have a brand new ebook, you'll probably think "Oh, maybe they'll get it" or, if you weren't looking for something specific but browsing/searching more generally, you won't even think about it.

But 1 ebook -- even if that's way too few too meet demand -- 1 ebook is evilly brilliant, because then it will appear in the catalogue so people will find it when browsing AND it will show a years-long wait queue, so that people will think "I want to read this book, but not in fourteen years, so I guess I will have to buy it" because they won't realize that in 8 weeks, the library will have another 50 copies.

They screw the libraries over but don't give up any fractional free advertising they might have gotten by not screwing them over.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:27 AM on September 12 [5 favorites]


Library uses will very rapidly wise up to that dodge because they are going to complain to librarians about their only being one copy of very popular ebook and the librarians are going to let them know it's because the publisher is being a tool.
posted by Mitheral at 9:09 AM on September 13


I was encouraging people to steal them directly from the publishers.

Ah, I was unclear. I get that you were saying that; I was saying no to the part of the first comment that suggested quickly checking out the book from the library. (As doing so would count as one of the library's limited checkouts). I probably shouldn't have also quoted you in my response.
posted by Pink Frost at 12:49 PM on September 13


Library users will very rapidly wise up to that dodge because they are going to complain to librarians about their only being one copy of very popular ebook and the librarians are going to let them know it's because the publisher is being a tool.

Well, the ones that visit, email, or call their library to complain may get that response. The ones who just see that it looks like their request won't be fulfilled for another five years may just think, wow, libraries suck. And since many library ebook borrowers are searching their library's ebook collection through Overdrive/Libby or another third-party service with limited ability to provide helpful library-specific info, the latter situation's more likely.
posted by asperity at 1:09 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


For everyone here gleefully advocating piracy of ebooks from publishers who don't make books available the way you would like, here's a firm rejoinder from an actual author.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:11 PM on September 15


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