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Opinion

Opinion: A major publisher is denying library users access to new e-books. That’s wrong

Los Angeles Public Library card
A public library card is the great equalizer, allowing access to knowledge for rich and poor alike.
(Gary Leonard)

Public libraries level the playing field. They ensure that everyone has access to books — not just those who can afford to purchase them. More than 7.4 million patrons of the city and county library systems of Los Angeles rely on us to fulfill that promise.

In an increasingly digital world, that means providing access to e-books and audiobooks. Already this year, our library users have downloaded more than 6 million titles — an increase of nearly 20% over last year — and demand is growing. In the county library system last year, e-media accounted for 37% of total circulation, up from 32% the previous year; in the city system, e-media accounted for 47% of total circulation last year, up from 40% the year before.

But the ability of libraries to meet reader demand for the latest e-books is now being threatened by an unlikely source. On Nov. 1, Macmillan Publishing, one of the nation’s largest book publishers, launched an e-book embargo against libraries. Macmillan will now sell only one copy of an e-book to a library system in the first eight weeks of the book’s publication. That means one book for Los Angeles Public Library and one for L.A. County Library to serve more than 7 million readers.

E-books, like bound books, can be loaned to only one library patron at a time, so for wildly popular new books, we often purchase dozens or even hundreds of copies to meet reader demand — and there are often still long waits.

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Macmillan says the embargo is needed because “it is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy. This is causing book-buying customers to change their habits, fueling the tremendous growth in e-book lending.” According to Macmillan, this “causes a problem across the publishing ecosystem.”

Their categorization of e-book lending as a “problem” fails to recognize that libraries are an essential part of that publishing ecosystem. Our libraries spend millions of dollars a year on digital content, often paying far more than other buyers. Publishers charge libraries up to four times more per digital title than they charge retailers.

We often buy on a very large scale. For example, Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” has seen tremendous popularity. Between us, the Los Angeles Public Library and L.A. County Library have purchased 833 e-book copies and 773 audiobook copies to serve the patrons of our systems. Clearly, our libraries have made a major investment in being able to satisfy our readers. We view this as the cost of doing business — and of fulfilling our mission to provide access.

But at the most basic level, this embargo blocks us from being able to provide this essential service. As more people choose to read on their tablets and phones, we join libraries across the nation in reminding publishers that libraries are their best customers. Not only do we purchase a lot of books but we also help create a love of books in young patrons that can translate into a lifetime of reading — and purchasing — books. Additionally, library-hosted author events often spur sales. And people who frequent libraries also buy books — both for themselves and as gifts.

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Macmillan’s action does more than create a scarcity of product and long waits; it is a fundamental attack on one of the most beloved democratic institutions and its central value of equitable access for all.

This embargo will especially affect lower-income households and people with disabilities. Many of our readers with limited vision depend on e-books, with their ability to adjust the size of type, to make reading possible. And accessing the library’s online collection from home is a huge benefit for those with mobility challenges who are unable to visit their local library.

This is not the first time libraries have found themselves at odds with publishers. Until as recently as 2011, some publishers were not offering e-books for sale to libraries. Policies finally changed, however, as publishers realized the symbiotic relationship they have with libraries.

Macmillan’s view is simplistic and shortsighted, and the embargo presents a new challenge to a long-standing and successful relationship. Macmillian seems to view libraries no longer as allies but as competition and a threat to sales. Their action could create a ripple effect with the ability to turn back the progress that has already been achieved. It could also be the start of a slippery slope to other punishments imposed on library readers by publishers.

Libraries understand the market challenges facing publishers, but we also have to prioritize equity, opportunity, lifelong learning and access. The Macmillan embargo is an attack on those essential, democratic services.

Concerned readers can add their names to a petition launched by the American Library Assn. at ebooksforall.org. It’s a chance to let publishers know how much you love and support your local libraries.

John F. Szabo is city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library and Skye Patrick is L.A. County Library director.


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