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Have you ever placed a hold on an item in Overdrive or Libby (our electronic books and electronic audio books) and found yourself waiting for a year for an item? Does it shock you to see you’re in the triple digits on a wait list? You are not alone. This is a problem that has plagued libraries since we began collecting electronic materials. There’s been a long-standing battle between libraries and publishers to find a balance between providing access to materials without increasingly adding a cost-burden to the library budget.

It seems so straightforward in theory—there’s an electronic file of a book, a library purchases it, and the patrons should have access, right? Well it is far more complicated than that. There are licensing agreements that vary from publisher to publisher, from book to book.

Sometimes multiple patrons can “read” this book at the same time, but then once it has been “read” (checked out online) a certain number of times (generally 24, 52, or other unusual numbers) the library technically no longer “owns” (because it is a licensing agreement and not ownership) that copy and has to purchase a new one. Or the book can only be read by one patron at a time, and the library only “owns” the ‘book’ for a certain number of years (usually one or two). Sometimes we own it forever, and only one patron can use the item at a time. You can see that it gets very muddied. These titles also tend to cost more than the physical counterparts: often a popular author e-book can cost $60-$80 compared to the $15-$25 (with discount) cost of a regular, new hardcover physical copy. The cost can even be up to five times what a consumer pays. When a library can only circulate them a certain number of times before buying new copies, the cost of just the popular author titles can add up quickly.

To take it one step further, some large publishers are imposing new restrictions that limit the library’s ability to offer new titles. In the beginning of November, Macmillan publishers announced an eight-week embargo on new e-books. Meaning that the first eight weeks after a title is released, libraries can purchase just ONE copy of the new e-book. After that, they can purchase more but at a premium for libraries. This restriction is nation-wide. Our digital content system serves the entire state of Wisconsin, so you can see how the impact will ripple out over all users. Wait lists will grow and costs will too.

There will be other unintended consequences as well. This will deny a large portion of our public access to information, disproportionately affecting access for the socioeconomically disadvantaged (who don’t have the choice to ‘purchase’ instead).

These strategies by the publisher will hurt libraries, patrons, and likely the authors and publishing industry itself. The American Library Association has responded by reminding Macmillan (and anyone paying attention) that restricting access or charging libraries extra is against what libraries stand for: ensuring all people have access to the world’s knowledge through our nation’s libraries. While the library community has been working diligently to find fair and equitable solutions, this embargo remains. Many libraries and library systems across the country are responding by boycotting the titles available through Macmillan Publishers and its imprints. This is in the hopes that Macmillan will reconsider their embargo, and to discourage other publishers from following suit.

As of this printing, there is no plan that we are aware of in our state collection, but that’s not to say there will not be something coming down the pipeline. Either way, the embargo will affect wait times for certain titles. This is one of those library-world battles where you’ll have to stay tuned!

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