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The Libby app, which gives Maryland readers access to the state's Digial eLibrary Consortium, displayed on an iPad.
The Libby app, which gives Maryland readers access to the state's Digial eLibrary Consortium, displayed on an iPad. (Cody Boteler/Cody Boteler)

The Maryland Library Association and local library systems have come out in opposition to a policy change from Macmillan Publishers that would restrict the number of e-books that library systems can purchase.

Under the proposal, library systems would be allowed to purchase only a single digital copy of a new book published by Macmillan for the first eight weeks after its publication. Macmillan is one of the “Big Five” publishing companies in the United States. The policy does not apply to physical books, just digital versions.

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The Maryland Library Association and the Baltimore County Public Library recently announced their formal opposition to Macmillan’s proposed policy change, which is supposed to take effect Nov. 1. Officials from the Howard County Library System, Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and Anne Arundel Public Library all said the change would be hard on the system and their patrons.

Macmillan did not respond to a request for comment.

Jamie Watson, collection development manager for the Baltimore County Public Library, said the publisher’s move could frustrate readers and customers because it will limit the number of people who can read a book at a given time.

As an example, Watson cited the new book “Vendetta in Death,” the latest in a series of books written by J.D. Robb, a pen name of Nora Roberts. Since the book’s release on Sept. 3, six digital copies have circulated 34 times as of Oct. 21, in the Baltimore County Public Library system, Watson said. Two people had holds to borrow a copy of the book.

“So take a moment and think about if we had only been able to purchase one copy on September 3,” Watson said. “We would not have had as many people able to borrow the book, [and] our current holds would be much higher than two.”

And, because Macmillan is one of the largest publishing houses in the country, Watson said she was worried that its move represents a “slippery slope” that other publishers might follow.

“We want to let the publishers know that we do not think this is the right thing to do,” Watson said.

The circulation of e-books and audiobooks is just a small fraction of the Baltimore County Public Library’s overall circulation, but has been growing.

In fiscal year 2019, the system circulated more than 10 million books and 1,046,264 e-books and audiobooks, according to data provided by the library system. That’s up about 39% from two years earlier when it circulated 753,179 e-books and audiobooks, library data for 2017 shows.

Similar growth is happening in Anne Arundel County, said Christine Feldmann, a spokeswoman for the county’s public library. She said digital materials represent about 20% of the library’s circulation, and “it’s the only part of our circulation that’s growing.”

If current trends continue, the Anne Arundel County Public Library expects digital material will represent more than half of the system’s circulation by 2025e, she said.

It may take a while for library patrons to notice the change, since it only involves one publisher, Watson said. It also may be confusing because it only involves new books from the one publishing house in the eight weeks after their publication.

Meghan McCorkell, a spokeswoman for Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, said Macmillan books account for about 7% of the system’s digital circulation,

“It’s going to hit hard,” she said.

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Digital material circulation at the Pratt Library increased by 79% between the year ended June 30 and the prior year, McCorkell said.

According to a memo from Macmillan CEO John Sargent that was obtained by the Library Journal, the company will charge $30, instead of $60, for first copies of new e-books, for a perpetual license, under the eight-week embargo plan. In the memo, Sargent talked about “growing fears” that library lending was “cannibalizing sales" for the company.

The idea is basic economics: Increasing scarcity in libraries could drive sales of new books.

Tonya Aikens, Howard County Library System’s president and CEO, said in a statement that Macmillan’s embargo plan “jeopardizes educational opportunities for people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.”

In addition to local opposition, the American Library Association has denounced Macmillan’s intent.

“Limiting access to new titles for libraries means limiting access for patrons most dependent on libraries," ALA President Wanda Brown said in a statement.

Alan Inouye, the ALA’s senior director of public policy and government relations, said in an email that the restrictive embargo policy furthers the “digital divide” between wealthy and non-wealthy readers. He said the blowback to the Macmillan policy has been angrier and larger than he expected.

“I’m not sure where this will head, but right now the trajectory is bad,” he wrote in an email.

Heidi Daniel, the CEO of the Pratt Library in Baltimore, said limitations and embargoes on digital material represent a “major equity issue.”

“It takes away access and impacts the people who are always impacted first: those who are most dependent on the public library,” she said in an email.

Watson agreed. Customers who could purchase a book instead of waiting for it will not be inconvenienced by the embargo, but it will affect patrons who depend on libraries for all or most of all their books and reading.

“It’s absolutely against everything that libraries stand for,” Watson said.

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.

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