Why we choose to boycott

The King County Library System (KCLS), Timberland Regional Library (TRL), and Washington Digital Library Consortium (WDLC) together provide eBooks and eAudiobooks to 2.8 million people, roughly 37% of all Washingtonians. We staff 122 locations, from Amanda Park in the Olympic National Forest, to urban Bellevue, to the farmland of Walla Walla County. Collectively, we license thousands of e-books from Macmillan. But we have chosen not to purchase any new licenses for Macmillan e-books unless the publisher drops its two-month embargo on new release titles. Here’s why.

The first reason is equity. In the state of Washington, 46% of school children qualify for reduced price or free lunch. Families who cannot afford lunch for their children do not borrow e-books because the experience is “frictionless.” They do, however, pay their share of the property taxes that fund our public library systems, which allows us to purchase e-book licenses on their behalf. We know that digital lending is a win for readers who cannot afford $14.99 for a single new release e-book. And we know library e-lending is also a win for publishers like Macmillan, generating revenue from readers who otherwise could not buy books at all.

We see Macmillan’s e-book embargo as an attempt to squeeze more sales from library users who might be able afford to buy a book, while disadvantaging readers who use the library out of need. Equal access to information in commonly used formats, regardless of ability to pay, is foundational to a democratic society and is why public libraries exist. So, we cannot in good conscience support a publisher whose terms support such inequity.

To many librarians, a boycott seems counter-intuitive, as it will prevent patrons from accessing some books from the library. We agree that libraries should support access and do not take the choice to boycott lightly. But the choice not to boycott also impedes patron access. If we have any chance of restoring equitable  access by limiting it temporarily, we believe that is a better path than accepting the inequitable access permanently. If we simply capitulate, we implicitly communicate to other publishers that embargoes are acceptable.

At the same time, the boycott also enables us to have positive discussions about access with patrons who want Macmillan e-books. Rather than saying ‘we’re sorry,’ our staff can say ‘we are advocating for you and our community.’ We can explain to them that we are doing our best to be good stewards with the tax money they entrust to us. And our patrons are with us. In the WDLC boycott of Blackstone, following its exclusive deal with Amazon, not one of our 45 member libraries reported negative feedback from patrons.

Some librarians, too, might believe that an eight-week embargo is no less harmful than other restrictions we have accepted on e-books from publishers. But we think an embargo sets a troubling precedent that, if followed by others, would give publishers unprecedented control over basic access in libraries. Currently, libraries have ways to enable e-book access despite expiration dates and high prices, but there is nothing we can do about a blanket policy that forces every e-book reader to wait eight extra weeks for library access. As Lisa Rosenblum, Executive Director of KCLS, has observed, such a restriction “profoundly changes the public library.”

The ALA’s valuable legislative advocacy efforts are working to combat such embargoes, but we fear that by the time those efforts bear fruit, embargoes and exclusive content restrictions could become the norm for digital content. Unlike the print market, libraries have no right to access e-book licenses, and no power to negotiate prices or license terms of sale. If we want terms that are fair, we must draw the line. And if we do not draw the line here, on basic access, which is a core library value, then where?

We hoped that ALA’s #ebooksforall PR campaign and the many letters, resolutions, and news articles in protest would induce Macmillan to reconsider its embargo. But Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s October 29 letter to librarians suggest the publisher has no plans to do so at this point. Thus, we believe it is time to show as well as tell publishers that we will not pay for a service that is fundamentally inequitable.

We know that three library systems in Washington alone do not have enough financial leverage to induce Macmillan to drop the embargo. But we are heartened that many other libraries have already made similar decisions. And we believe that a collective effort to emphasizes libraries’ considerable financial leverage is the fastest, if not the only way to take a stand for equity and restore access.

For libraries interested in knowing more, we have posted information here about our decision, including a “toolkit” of materials we use to communicate with patrons, staff, and stakeholders.