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Are publishers that short-sighted? Questioning Macmillan’s new ebook guidelines

By Bessie Sullivan

“Beginning November 1, Macmillan Publishers is restricting library access to new e-books, causing long wait times for some titles.”

If you are an ebook borrower, you may have noticed the above statement when you accessed OverDrive on your public library website. This statement reflects the fact that, once again, public libraries are undervalued, based on ignorance. Despite evidence to the contrary, some segments of the business community (including publishers) do not view public libraries as economic drivers, nor are libraries recognised for their enormous buying power. Witness the new Macmillan Publishers’ ebook-selling guidelines introduced last November. Writers do not share this short-sightedness, as they understand the promotion and selling abilities of public libraries.

New guidelines, no business case
Macmillan Publishers introduced new ebook guidelines in late 2019 to address what Macmillan CEO John Sargent has referred to as “growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales.” These guidelines include measures such as licensing restrictions, which will lead to an ebook licence expiring after a set amount of time or after a set number of circulations or both. As a result, a library is now forced to rebuy a title, usually at a much higher rate than that paid by the average consumer.

According to Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, Macmillan “overlooks a key concept in building its case. Library users borrow titles and place them on bookshelves, but often these titles are not read. It should be the hope of every author that their title is selected, borrowed and hopefully read and enjoyed. Public libraries provide a safe and welcoming place and online service to browse, borrow and read or not read a borrowed book. That’s one of the most beautiful things about public libraries.”

Efforts to push back against these new guidelines include the petition #eBooksForAll, which supports equal access to information for all and resists this embargo. While this petition can bring attention to this issue, I was hoping for a consortium boycott and would have led the charge. However, when I consulted colleagues within my library networks, I discovered that there was no appetite for such action in Canada. 

Alternatively, some of the people in these networks have suggested that an effective action would be to opt out of voting for any Macmillan titles that have been nominated for an award. However, to me, this type of action hurts writers, who are our allies and not the root of the problem. Unlike Macmillan and some other ebook purveyors, authors do understand the value of public libraries when it comes to promoting and ultimately selling books.

A business case for rescinding ebook guidelines
Here are four arguments in favour of greater access and against the new Macmillan guidelines. These four actions do not harm writers.

1.  Library users are book buyers
According to a new BookNet Canada study, Borrow, buy, read: Library use and book buying in Canada, “Canadians who both buy and borrow books purchase more books, on average per month, than buyers who don’t use the library at all.” 

As author Lisa Schroeder tweeted last July, “You know what happens in libraries? People find my backlist. You know what happens when they find my backlist and like it? They look for my recent & future books and often buy them. Libraries help keep many mid-list authors’ careers alive.”

In addition, libraries allow readers a free trial, during which they can test drive titlesa service that many use. I can certainly attest to this practice, based on my own book-buying habits.

2.  Libraries are book buyers and promoters with enormous purchasing power
When Michael Redhill’s novel Consolation was chosen as the Keep Toronto Reading title in 2008, Toronto Public Library bought approximately 2,000 copies of this book. Redhill later spoke at the OLA Super Conference about the positive impact such public recognition can have on an author’s book sales. Libraries can have a similar impact, through our acquisitions and programs such as author events.

In the Haliburton County Public Library system, we predominantly buy from a library jobber but we also buy from the only independently owned bookstore in the county. We view the booksellers as just as much a part of our team as the authors. At our biggest author event of the year, we invite the local bookseller to sell copies for the author to sign; that is, after the library has purchased multiple copies for people preparing to attend the event. 

Children’s author Aimee Reid (left) and mystery writer Maureen Jennings (right) have visited Haliburton County public libraries. Here they are wearing a “Keep calm and read a book” T-shirts that they purchased at a HCPL.

When writers agree to speak in libraries, their engagement with readers can drive their books sales in the same way that awards and reading programs can boost sales. 

3.  Public lending rights support authors
The Canada Council for the Arts administers a public lending program that sends yearly payments to creators whose works are in the collections of Canada’s public libraries and are easily searchable in online catalogues. Over 17,000 Canadian authors receive a payment each year and this payment includes ebooks and audiobooks. Authors Michael Redhill and Barbara Fradkin have both told me how important these yearly cheques are to both their bank accounts and their well-being as writers.

4.  Donations support authors
I completely support artists getting paid for their work: An author can’t put food on the table with “exposure” alone. However, we need to keep in mind that library users are book buyers, who may want to test drive the book, so having copies of books in libraries is beneficial to the creator, no matter how the book got there; i.e., whether the library provides access to new or used books. So, whereas a donated second-hand copy does not generate the royalties a purchased copy does, it does provide other economic benefits to the writer.

Recently, Barbara Fradkin graciously gave us a day of her time and was a guest at our Friends of the Library’s main fundraiser of the year. Of this day she wrote,

There are many times when we writers wonder why on earth we do this crazy job.  Then a day like this comes along and reminds us why we write. Not just for ourselves but for that community for readers and fellow story lovers who are eager to be transported and who share our excitement at the stories we tell.

Libraries and publishers are allies
At the Haliburton County Public Library, we have developed an advocacy effort regarding fair ebook pricing based on a Toronto Public Library template. One component of this template is a letter that can be sent to publishers from public library boards. Our board sent a letter to the “Big Five” publishers (HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House Canada) and the conclusion made the case that:

Libraries and publishers are allies, part of the same reading ecosystem, with public libraries having enormous purchasing power when it is cost effective for tax payers. It serves neither of our interests if libraries cannot afford e-book collections. 

Writers already know that libraries and publishers are allies. Now we need to get publishers to acknowledge this reality. Perhaps this latest attack on public libraries will finally be the catalyst for change, as U.S.-led boycotts of Macmillan are proving to hit big business where it really hurts, in the profits.


Bessie Sullivan is the CEO of the Haliburton County Public Library. She can be reached at bsullivan [at]

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