Tammy Gruer, media and technology specialist with Guilford County Schools, shows how an e-book from the school system's virtual library can be read on a smartphone. Jessie Pounds/News & Record

The tug-of-war between public libraries and ebook publishers just got a little rougher with Macmillan Publishers taking a hard-line approach to access on new titles.

The American Library Association has been circulating an online petition to convince the publishing giant to change course, and librarians have been prepping customers for a change.

The struggle is about finding the right financial model for books in the digital age.

Record companies had the same growing pains with online music sharing sites. Movie studios and cable companies continue to have these tensions with streaming services.

With libraries, it feels different because their mission is to promote literacy and public dialogue. They build eventual book buyers. They aren’t the competitors of publishers.

To understand this issue, it’s helpful to know how ebooks differ when it comes to public libraries.

The process is nothing like it is for individual sales, said Sue Anderson, the Tulsa City-County Library’s director of customer service.

“We don’t own any ebooks; we license them,” she said.

For example, when someone buys “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood from Amazon, they spend $14.99 and own that copy.

When the Tulsa library signed a contract to offer “The Testaments” in an ebook, it agreed to a two-year term or 52 circulations. It means that specific ebook will no longer be available after two years or after it has been checked out 52 times, whichever comes first.

A single ebook copy of “The Testaments” cost the Tulsa library $95 from Penguin Random House.

“That is typical, but some contracts may be just a number of (circulations) or time frame,” Anderson said. “We buy based on our to-hold ratio, meaning we don’t want any more than three people waiting per copy. That way a customer is never more than third in line for a title. That’s common in the industry.”

Circulation is modeled after physical books. Ebooks cannot be checked out at the same time. The library must buy more ebook licenses for several customers to read a title simultaneously.

There is always a rush on new titles after its publication date.

“It’s new, and book groups want to read and talk about it,” Anderson said. “The demand, particularly for fiction, is up front, usually in the first eight weeks.”

Previously, the Macmillan ebook contracts were for two years or 52 circulations. Harper Collins has 26 circulations for one year; Penguin Random House and Hachette have a one-year agreement or 24 circulations; and Simon Schuster offers two-year licenses.

Costs change per title with older ones going a little cheaper. The highest was for “Go Set a Watchman,” the sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for $129 per license.

Starting Nov. 1, Macmillan Publishing changed its ebook contracts with public libraries.

Now, each library is limited to one copy of all new Macmillan titles during the first eight weeks after release. That title will cost $30 and have no limit on circulation.

If a customer has two weeks to finish a book, then only four people will get a chance to read it.

These terms do not consider demand or library size. So a small-town library will get one copy, just like Tulsa or Dallas library systems that have multiple branches throughout a metro area.

Among the Macmillan titles are those written by Nora Roberts, Stacey Abrams and Bill O’Reilly.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent sent a memo in July to authors and agents stating the change was “in response to our growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales.”

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

That’s a simplistic, outdated and flawed thinking about public libraries.

“They are discounting the fact that library customers also buy books,” Anderson said. “They buy books they fall in love with at the library. Not many people can afford to buy every book they want to read. They also want to try new authors.

“Libraries help with publicity for the publishing houses. They spend less on marketing and advertising. Libraries are where people discover their books and authors.”

The Tulsa library has projects promoting exploration of new and old titles including the “next great reads” events, regular recommendation lists and community-wide reading initiatives.

“We are exposing people to titles. Some people may only be able to afford to buy one book a year, and this helps them decide what to purchase,” Anderson said.

Two days before the new policy was implemented, Sargent responded to librarians in a letter stating this was an attempt to find “middle ground.”

“I realize the lack of availability in the first eight weeks will frustrate some ebook patrons, and that will make your jobs more difficult. Your patrons would be happy if they could get any book they wanted instantly and seamlessly, but that would be severely debilitating for authors, publishers, and retailers,” Sargent stated.

Research is underway to determine how libraries impact sales.

The Panorama Project is a partnership between ebook providers and OverDrive, which is a platform used by libraries for ebook circulation. It collects data on how local libraries are developing readers, driving book discovery and generating book sales in communities.

“Libraries are a leveling place. It’s where everybody can participate in the conversation,” Anderson said.

The Tulsa library plans to wait on buying the Macmillan one new-release copy toward to end of the 8-week embargo.

“We don’t want people frustrated, waiting eight weeks and still not getting that title,” Anderson said. “We don’t feel that is good service for customers.”

Libraries still spend a significant amount of money on books, both print and ebooks.

“Our goal is to provide equitable access to all materials out there in the world so customers don’t have to purchase every book,” Anderson said. “We want people to participate in public dialogue. By closing people out of the market, by not selling to libraries, it seems very unfair and un-American to me.”

Featured video

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376


Twitter: @GinnieGraham