Local library patrons will see a change in access to certain e-books starting this week.

In response to a new policy on e-book purchases imposed by Macmillan Publishers and effective Nov. 1, King County Library System will be boycotting the publisher’s upcoming e-books, declining to purchase any new Macmillan books in that format. Seattle Public Library will not be boycotting, but warns readers that they may notice long delays in obtaining new Macmillan e-books.

Macmillan’s new policy, announced earlier this year, changes library access to e-books from the publisher.

Until this week, libraries could purchase unlimited copies of e-books (as they could for print books, audiobooks and other formats), though access was metered; in most cases, after two years, the library was required to repurchase the e-copy. When announcing the change in a memo earlier this year, Macmillan CEO John Sargeant referenced “our growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales.”

With Macmillan’s new policy, libraries may now only purchase one copy of an e-book upon its original release, and may only buy additional metered copies after an eight-week waiting period.

In response, King County Library System will no longer purchase Macmillan’s upcoming e-books, meaning library patrons will not have access to new Macmillan titles in that format, though KCLS will still buy the publisher’s new releases in formats such as print and audio.


Seattle Public Library, meanwhile, is taking a less drastic stance. It will continue to purchase Macmillan e-books, but will wait to buy the library’s one allowed copy until the end of the embargo period, purchasing additional copies at that time as needed. That means patrons may have to wait longer for new Macmillan e-book titles than they currently do.

SPL made that decision “to avoid frustrating waits and long hold times for these titles,” Marcellus Turner, SPL’s chief librarian, said in a statement. “Since only a handful of patrons would be able to access one e-book during the embargo period, delaying our purchase avoids having a record in our catalog that would inflate demand that we cannot respond to.” SPL will continue to purchase other formats of Macmillan books as it usually does.

Publishers’ e-book restrictions and pricing hurt library users in Seattle, King County and beyond

Macmillan is among the top publishing houses in the country, part of a group known as the “big five” that also includes Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. Upcoming Macmillan e-book releases that will be affected by the publisher’s new policy include Daniel Jose Older’s “The Book of Lost Saints,” Jeff Vandermeer’s “Dead Astronauts,” Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House: A Memoir,” Jamie Oliver’s “Ultimate Veg,” and many more.

Contacted in August shortly after the change was announced, a Macmillan representative said the company had “no comment at this time.” A Macmillan rep could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Both SPL and KCLS maintain a holds-per-copy ratio for popular books, so that library users won’t have to endure waits longer than a few months. Generally, for every five holds requested by patrons, the library will purchase one additional copy. For popular books, this means that dozens of e-copies might typically be purchased; Turner noted that for Margaret Atwood’s recent bestseller “The Testaments” (published by Penguin Random House), SPL initially purchased 86 e-copies, adding several dozen more when demand was high.

Having only one e-copy of a popular book would mean interminable waits. “Our holds will build up to a point where we could have thousands of holds,” said KCLS executive director Lisa Rosenblum. “After two months, we can buy more, but there’ll be a huge backlog.” In that scenario, she said, the library would be forced to buy multiple extra copies to try to address the shortfall — in effect, “rewarding them for not selling us books. That doesn’t work for us.”


The American Library Association has denounced the new policy, launching an online petition, #eBooksforAll (currently with more than 150,000 signatures). And KCLS — the largest digital-circulating library in the U.S., with 4.7 million circulated digital items in 2017 — is drawing a line in the e-sand.

It is, Rosenblum said, a matter of principle. “If all the big five publishers do this, the public library as we know it would change profoundly. So I just decided, enough already. I’m not going to play this game. We will still buy print copies of Macmillan books, there’s no embargo on them. But the e-copies, we’re not going to buy. We’ll divert our money into publishers that are willing to sell to us.”

SPL, ranked as the fourth-largest digital-circulating library in the country (behind KCLS and the Los Angeles and New York public libraries), is taking a less drastic stance, due to concerns about patrons with accessibility issues who rely on the e-book format, as well as those on limited incomes, the library said in a statement.

Turner, speaking earlier this year, expressed hope that other publishers don’t follow Macmillan’s example. “I think they’re all doing that wait-and-see approach,” he said, “ and figuring out if Macmillan survives this, or how much scrutiny or shame they receive — whether that would be worthwhile to them. We’re trying to make sure the other publishers know how much we appreciate them working with us.”

Rosenblum is doubtful that Macmillan will change its policy — “they don’t seem interested in talking anymore” — but likewise retains hope that other publishers will maintain the status quo, pointing toward a recent statement by Penguin Random House that was supportive of working with public libraries.

She’s disturbed by Sargent’s characterization of libraries as cannibalizing sales: “We’ve never had that kind of relationship with our publishers,” she said. Rosenblum called Macmillan’s new policy “a very dangerous precedent that they’re setting.”