Macmillan eBooks Boycott

Macmillan Publishing announced that it will place a new purchasing embargo on eLending as of November 1, 2019, allowing libraries to purchase only a single copy of a Macmillan eBook in the first eight weeks of release, regardless of demand or the size of the library. This will be painful for both our staff and our patrons.

In protest, we plan to boycott Macmillan eBooks effective January 1, 2020. Rationale:

  • The Public Library of Brookline will be boycotting Macmillan eBooks starting January 1, 2020 and will continue to do so while Macmillan continues to embargo. If other library systems follow our example, we may have a real chance of collectively overturning the embargo. Some other library systems which are boycotting MacMillan can be found here.
  • It is highly probable that more of the Big Five publishers will move to embargo content unless libraries take corrective action with Macmillan. And there is no reason to think that eLending restrictions will stop there. ALA is reforming the Digital Content Working Group, but a boycott will allow us to “hold the line” while they organize.
  • Ebook embargoes are particularly bad for libraries. Unlike metered access, their impact cannot be ameliorated with more collection budget money. Embargoes are also bad for the publishing ecosystem as a whole, because they will cause readership on any given book to fall 25-40%.
  • The Public Library of Brookline is struggling with unsustainable cost increases from growth alone. New metered access restrictions from multiple publishers will make it worse. Limiting our spending on Macmillan can give us financial breathing room while we determine how to move forward sustainably.

Given that other publishers are likely to follow Macmillan’s example, a boycott can be successful for our patrons even if Macmillan does not drop its policy. Success looks like:

  • No other publisher implements an embargo of any type.
  • No publisher adds further restrictions to lending models.
  • No publisher increases pricing to libraries out of proportion with increases to consumers.
  • If enough other libraries join us, Macmillan will drop the embargo.

Why a boycott?

We do not take a boycott proposal lightly. It seems counterintuitive to advocate for access by restricting access. It flies in the face of our mission, so elegantly stated by S.R. Ranganathan, here paraphrased:

Every person his, her,or their book.

Moreover, the boycott of a large publisher like Macmillan is certain to be noticed by our patrons. It is painful to consider asking our hard-working customer service staff to deal with patrons who will not have access to the eBooks they want. But the embargo unfortunately forces us into these conversations whether or not we boycott. A boycott at least allows us to control the narrative: rather than simply saying “I’m sorry,” we can say, “We’re advocating for you, and here’s why.”

If a boycott succeeds in showing the publishers that we will not accept embargoes or the damper they create on a vibrant culture of reading, then we will have ultimately done a service not just for Macmillan authors, but all of the Big Five authors. If we don’t boycott and Macmillan is not stopped, it’s very likely they and other publishers will institute longer, more comprehensive embargoes, and titles by those diverse authors will not be available for us to purchase even if we wanted to.

Indeed, good stewardship is an important reason to think carefully about how best to deal with Macmillan and the precedent it may set for other publishers. We apply high standards with regard to collection development at the Public Library of Brookline (policy). If we use the same diligence with the eBook vendors that we use with the vendors who supply our telephone service and ILS software, then it makes sense to question whether we, as  careful stewards of taxpayer money, can continue to do “business-as-usual” with Macmillan, which has undercut its service level and raised its prices by 50% in one year.

Doesn’t a boycott play into Macmillan’s hands in the attempt to get more people to buy books than borrow them?

The rationale behind the embargo is to both increase retail revenue and retain library revenue and other library benefits. To break it down, when Macmillan was considering their library terms of service, they could have done three things:

  1. Left the terms of service as they were
    1. Live with “cannibalized” retail sales
    2. Retain library sales and benefits
  2. Stopped eLending entirely
    1. Eliminate cannibalization of retail sales
    2. Lose library sales and benefits
  3. Launched the embargo.
    1. Minimize cannibalization of retails
    2. Retain library sales and benefits

They chose #3 because it is the most profitable choice.

By boycotting, we disallow Macmillan from maximizing their revenue while they add barriers to library service and reading. We remove them from position #3, which is their most profitable scenario, and put them in position #2, where they lose revenue from libraries and all of the benefits to their authors that libraries confer. It may be that their retail sales will increase. However, this is not the outcome they were targeting.

Additionally, data shows that readers discover new authors in two places: Amazon and the library. The library is popular with readers because it allows them to discover new works without financial risk. Many go on to purchase books from authors they discovered using the library. (The publishing companies are aware of this behavior. The restrictions they have been adding do not mean that they don’t value libraries’ contributions to their business. Restrictions mean that they want all of the value we offer, and they want more revenue.) The Big Five publishers, insofar as they compete with each other, need to have a presence in the library so that their works turn up in the results when readers are browsing for new things to read. If libraries boycott Macmillan, removing its new titles from the search results, then readers will simply discover books by Macmillan’s competitors. Macmillan can’t sustain such a model long term, especially given that Amazon as a point of discovery is highly problematic for publishers; it competes with them and actively promotes its own products and services on every book search.