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79 mayors, U.S. Congress wade into publisher’s limit on eBooks for libraries

WATCH: Public libraries across North America have been pushing back against Macmillan Publisher's eBook restriction, saying it threatens equal access to information. Now, the U. S. House of Representatives is asking for more information. Emily Mertz explains.

Public libraries across North America continue to fight against a major multi-national publisher’s new eBook restrictions. Dozens of elected officials are now part of the debate.

“Urban Libraries Council, in partnership with the Canadian Libraries Council, has brought forward a statement for leaders across the United States and Canada to sign,” said Sharon Day, Edmonton Public Library’s director of branch services and collections.

“Mayors have signed their names to this letter, which essentially gives them a platform to communicate that they believe public libraries are important institutions and that what Macmillan is doing isn’t right.

“It’s not the right way to deal with changes in the digital landscape.”

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On Nov. 1, Macmillan Publishers put a one-copy limit on eBooks for libraries. Regardless of the public library system’s size, they are only allowed one eBook copy of a new title for eight weeks. After that, they can purchase additional copies.

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READ MORE: Publishers’ embargo on eBooks ‘could be crippling’ to Edmonton libraries

Edmonton’s Don Iveson was one of the first to add his name to the statement. Seventy-nine elected officials are now part of the call. (Scroll down to read the statement in full).

“Multi-national publishers are price-gouging taxpayers and intensifying the gaps between the haves and have-nots in communities of all sizes with their restrictive licenses and excessively high prices,” the mayors’ statement reads.

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“Most concerning is the new eBook embargo imposed by Macmillan Publishers, which results in an intentional erosion of digital equity by severely restricting eBook access for library patrons,” it continues.

New restrictions on e-books could cause problems for Edmonton libraries
New restrictions on e-books could cause problems for Edmonton libraries

Public libraries have been pushing back against the embargo, saying it threatens equal access to information. A petition with tens of thousands of names was started and delivered to the company. An #ebooksforall hashtag became a trend.

“Libraries are the great equalizer,” Day said. “The playing field is being made equal by public libraries and we have a major multi-national publisher that is undoing that equalization.

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“People depend on public libraries — whether it’s because they can’t get the library physically to get their material… or whether they have a visual disability, and so they need the public library in order to access that content. So when we have a title with only one hold, that’s one person at a time that can — for the entire city — access that book.”

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READ MORE: EPL joins other public libraries across North America to protest publisher’s ebook restrictions

Day used the new Nora Roberts’ book, being released Nov. 26, as an example. The print version retails for about $20. The eBook version sells for about $15. Day said libraries pay four to five times more for an eBook copy, which they can only lend out to one customer at a time, and usually only have available for two years.

EPL joins other public libraries in protesting ebook restrictions
EPL joins other public libraries in protesting ebook restrictions

“We’ve done a lot of work trying to educate our public on what’s happening but I know we probably haven’t reached a lot of people,” she said.

“They are probably going to be surprised when they go to put a hold on the new, hot title and they’re not seeing additional copies being purchased. ‘I’m going to have to wait three years to get my hands on this?!’

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“I think Macmillan Publishers is banking that if somebody gets frustrated at the public library, because they’re seeing they’re going to have to wait a very long time to get their hands on a new, hot title, they’re hoping they’re going to go buy that eBook instead. But there are many people who just don’t have that as an option,” Day explained.

READ MORE: Cost of ebooks, audiobooks ‘not a sustainable model’ for Canadian libraries, council says

At the end of October, the U.S. Congress started looking into the issue.

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The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives asked the American Library Association for information about Macmillan and Amazon.

Amazon publishes eBooks, audio books and podcasts (like Audible) that are not available to libraries at all, Day explained.

“The judiciary branch is looking into anti-competitive behaviour in the library digital landscape and they’ve specifically requested information about Amazon and Macmillan,” she said.

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11-14-ALACongress.pdf by Emily Mertz on Scribd

Macmillan wrote an open letter to librarians, explaining its decision.

It was based on the difference in revenue between a lend and a sale and the perceived value of a book when it’s published.

“We believe the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed eBooks decreases the perceived economic value of a book. I know that you pay us for these eBooks, but to the reader, they are free. In the pre-digital world, reading for free from libraries was part of the business model. To borrow a book in those days required transportation, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forgot to get them back on time. In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market,” Macmillan’s letter reads, in part.

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“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.

“We are trying to find a middle ground.

“We are not trying to hurt libraries; we are trying to balance the needs of the system in a new and complex world,” the letter, signed “John,” continues.

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READ MORE: Beyond books — Why library funding cuts impact more than just readers

When the Nov. 26 release comes, Day says EPL will do its best to help Nora Roberts fans find her new book, but she also has another suggestion.

“There are many publishers who are not embargoing their content. There are lots of other authors. You can come to the library, discover new content, discover new authors.

“Keep in mind that there are other big publishers and none of them are feeling the need to do this. It’s only Macmillan that’s feeling this is an important thing to do. I think it says something that they’re the only ones.”

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11-14-mayorslibrary.pdf by Emily Mertz on Scribd