March 19, 2020

Coronavirus (and maybe some other data) prompts Macmillan to lift controversial ebook embargo


Just last week we wrote about the latest movements in the ongoing standoff between Macmillan and libraries regarding the publisher’s ebooks.

A very very quick re-re-cap: On November 1st 2019, Macmillan instituted an eight week lag between when a book is published and when its ebook becomes available through libraries. The hope being that restricting access to a free ebook would keep that edition from scooping print sales in the crucial first weeks of a book’s life.

The news last week was that Macmillan had put forth a set of possible compromises that would lift the eight week embargo, but introduce an awkward new set of usage fees.

But what a difference a week makes. And one could argue this last week has brought about more global change per minute than the last 10,000 weeks combined.

It certainly brought about a change in Macmillan’s thinking on the ebook matter, as evidenced by their plan to drop the ebook embargo effective this coming Friday.

“There are times in life when differences should be set aside” CEO John Sargent wrote in a brief announcement of the policy retraction. The message comes at a time when many libraries (and bookstores) are locking up their physical spaces, and hoping to stay as electronically engaged as possible with their patrons.

As Andrew Albanese reports for Publishers Weekly, even Macmillan’s harshest critics welcome the news:

Carmi Parker, an ILS [Integrated Library System] administrator for the Whatcom County (WA) Library System who maintains a resource for libraries boycotting Macmillan in the wake of the embargo, said she is looking forward to ending the boycott and bringing new release Macmillan e-books back to library readers.

“The pandemic has highlighted for us how important it is for readers to have access to e-books and e-audiobooks, especially for the young people in Washington State, where all schools are closed through April 24,” Parker told PW. “But we recognize too that the issues that prompted the embargo may not be resolved, and we are willing to work with Macmillan and other publishers on ways to make e-lending technology work well for all of us.”

At the moment it is unclear whether the new policy will hold post-pandemic, or if negotiations will re-open at that point.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.