Libraries Boycotting eBooks

I’m not sure how much knowledge of this has spread outside library land, but inside library land, one of the biggest pieces of news in the last while has been centered around Macmillan Publishing’s decision to change the way it sells eBooks to public libraries.

Publishers have come up with a number of wonky ways to handle the way they sell eBooks to libraries. Some of them have done it by charging libraries more for the product, or by restricting the number of checkouts a library can let an eBook circulate for. The basic concern on the part of publishers is that people will discover libraries exist, and if it’s too easy to borrow an eBook from a library, they’ll stop buying any eBooks at all, choosing instead to just borrow the book whenever they want. With print books, there was a “shelf life” of the book: once it’s been checked out too many times, the books physically begins to fall apart. Copies get lost. They get ruined by rain. They get eaten by dogs.

Libraries have to buy more copies to replace those copies, in other words. But with eBooks, none of that happens. Publishers worry that people will just stop buying books altogether, and that the bottom line will be seriously affected. To combat this, Macmillan’s new approach is to refuse to sell libraries any eBooks until after a book has been in print for 8 weeks. Those first few weeks are crucial to a book’s success, they say, and they want to be sure libraries don’t cannibalize that success.

Of course, librarians argue that they themselves are part of a book’s success. They buy eBooks. Many, many eBooks. Readers find new authors through libraries. Libraries promote authors. It’s been a formula that’s worked well for a long, long time. They say Macmillan is doing a blatant money grab with a thinly veiled excuse that doesn’t pass muster.

And here I stand, a librarian and an author. What do I think of the whole situation?

On the one hand, part of me can see Macmillan’s point. There are certainly already models in existence that follow the new model they’d like to establish. No one complains that first run movies aren’t available in a library when they’re still in theaters. They premiere in a theater and then, months later, they’re on DVD or streaming, and that’s when people can buy them and watch them at home. Except . . .

These are books we’re talking about. When they are released, they are released in a format everyone can buy them. Libraries want to buy them. Macmillan just doesn’t want to sell them to libraries, and that feels petty and artificial. Honestly, it feels like Macmillan is stabbing a long-term partner in the back.

I buy the books I want to read. I buy almost all of them on my Kindle, because that’s the way that’s easiest for me to read them. I don’t check them out from the library, because I prefer to read what I want, when I want. I really dislike having to wait for the next book I want to read, and I like knowing I can read that book whenever I want. Yes, I know the way I read books isn’t the best way for long-term health of book stores. Giving money to Amazon isn’t nearly as good as giving money to my local bookstore. At the same time, I believe in Reading more than I believe in the business of books. People should read what they want, when they want, how they want, and no one should be sent on a guilt trip for reading the “wrong way.”

When I write books and publish books, I want people to read those books. The way that would make me the most money is if they’d buy them in hardback in the first 8 weeks of publication. That has a big impact, since it’s what makes the biggest splash (putting books on bestseller lists, catching attention, etc.) But I’m not in this game to just get as much money out of people as I can on one or two books. I’m in the long game. I want to publish more books, and the way that happens is by more and more people being exposed to my books and finding out how much they love them. (Hopefully)

There used to be four ways for people to discover new books. Libraries. Book stores. Reviews. Word of mouth. Book stores have been severely hampered the last few years, as more of the big chain stores went under, having already driven the independents under. Thankfully, there’s been signs of a growing resurgence of independents in some areas, but it’s still not back to where it was. Reviews still play a part, as does word of mouth. You could argue online stores like Amazon have taken the place of brick and mortar stores.

But any which way you slice it, libraries still play a key role in exposing readers to authors. And libraries pay for the privilege to do it. They buy the books. They talk the books up. When they succeed, publishers succeed. At first blush, I can see the argument Macmillan is making. But the more I look at it and think about it, the more preposterous it sounds. “We want to stop selling books to you, because you’re making it so too many people are reading our books.”

The more people read those books, the more fans those authors get. The more fans they get, the their books are going to be in demand. Libraries are now threatening to boycott Macmillan over this issue. If I were an author published by Macmillan, I’d be very upset over the potential loss of readers. Maybe if I were an author selling a gazillion copies of my books, I’d be upset that I wasn’t wringing every last dollar out of my potential audience that I could. But I doubt it.

For the long term health of reading and the book industry in general, libraries need to remain in the look. Macmillan is abusing a long-term ally to make some short term gains. It’s true that having their books only be available outside of libraries the first 8 weeks might make it more likely fans would want to buy a personal copy. But you know what else is out there? Pirated, free copies. Streaming has shown that if you make something available reasonably easily for not too much money, most people would be fine paying for it. If you make it expensive and difficult to obtain, more and more people will just steal it. Is that really what Macmillan wants?

True, I get that “people will just steal it” is a pretty base argument, but so is “too many people are reading our book from the library” . . .

What will I do? I’m going to continue buying books I want to read, regardless of publisher. At my heart, I’m pro-author, and I’d hate for some people’s careers to suffer because of this. (And some careers will suffer. No doubt.) I can’t blame libraries for boycotting, though. Macmillan is trying this to see what they can get away with.

Why can’t we all just get along?

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