A lot has happened in the last six months around library eLending! Following a first interview last October about ongoing efforts to improve eLending conditions for libraries in the United States, we’re happy to publish a follow-up interview with Sari Feldman, Senior Fellow at the American Library Assoication’s Office for Information Technology Policy.  

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about the state of eBooks lending in the US and the American Library Association’s (ALA) Washington Office and its advocacy and support for free access to digital content for all libraries. 

This has been a tumultuous time for libraries beginning nearly ten years ago with the creation of the ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG); a direct response to coordinating a national effort to achieve library access to eBooks from the Big Five (then the Big Six) publishers.

At that time not all publishers were willing to sell or lease content to libraries.  The DCWG created a dialog with publishers and ultimately all began selling or leasing eBooks and digital audiobooks for library collections  Even before the Macmillan Publishers eight-week embargo of new titles in 2019, however, the price and terms of sale and lease had consistently been dictated by publishers and did not favour libraries. 

In recent years all the large publishers have moved to a licensing rather than an ownership model, most pricing for a two-year holding in a library collection.  One year and pay per use have also been explored by publishers.  Pricing has remained extremely high, typically five times the cost of retail per copy.  As Amazon has increasingly become a publisher of original ebook and digital audiobook content, their ban on sales and leasing of exclusive and original content to libraries has been a rallying cry for free access.


Libraries have been dealing with challenges around digital content for some time – why a renewed focus now?

Macmillan Publishers first began a library embargo of titles in the Tor imprint, declaring it an experiment.  Conversations with library directors and leadership followed but the outcome was a larger embargo introduced in November 2019. 

Libraries could not lease any new titles published by Macmillan in any imprint for eight weeks, except for one copy regardless of library or population size.  This decision was unacceptable on many levels; violation of free access, inequitable access between economically advantaged and disadvantaged, and violation of the relationship between publishers and libraries. 

Libraries pay for content and in fact pay in excess of retail.  Libraries are critical to the book ecosystem, creating discovery of titles, and promoting and supporting books, authors and reading. The ALA Washington Office mounted an aggressive public education campaign including a petition call for Macmillan to drop the embargo.  Independent of that effort, many libraries across the nation began to boycott purchases of Macmillan digital.


What sort of future are we looking at if nothing changes?

Library leaders believed that if a strong reaction to the Macmillan embargo was not mounted, other publishers would consider embargo, or increasingly unfavourable terms for library leasing. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a new spin on the future of digital content.  OverDrive, the leading vendor for library ebook and audiobook content, is seeing large increases in registration for the instant library card, first time users of digital content, and increased circulation of digital books and audiobooks.  Library buildings are closed and readers who were previously ambivalent or agnostic to e-reading, have embraced digital content.  These readers cannot or do not want to purchase physical copies of books and few libraries have a way for patrons to borrow.

During this pandemic, publishers have proven to be accommodating to digital readers and particularly to school-age children and families by enabling free and low-cost collections for schools and libraries.  Macmillan Publishers lifted the embargo and returned their pricing to pre-embargo costs.

We would hope that this spirit of cooperation on behalf of readers and online education would continue beyond the pandemic crisis.  Libraries will find themselves in a challenging predicament post-social distancing. Will the circulation of physical items revive once libraries reopen?  As libraries spend exclusively on digital content during this time and anticipate budget cuts following the re-opening of the US, will there be dollars available for physical content in the near future? 

Meanwhile, the publishing industry is being rocked by coronavirus.  Distribution warehouses have closed, staff have been furloughed, publishing schedules have been pushed back and demand is not necessarily translating into earnings. 

I believe that the future of publishing will inexorably be tied to the future of libraries and it would bode well for all, publishers and library leaders, to begin considering a reboot of the reading ecosystem and collaborations to successfully rebuild a vibrant publishing industry and reading community.  Libraries will increasingly be elevated as essential for online discovery, hand-selling and promoting titles as author tour events are cancelled, some independent bookstores permanently shuttered, and community gatherings such as book discussions and authors talks eliminated from library programming. 



What has been your key message so far, and has this resonated across the library field and beyond?

The message of free access, a core value of America’s libraries, has been the most important rallying cry. Libraries pay for content of course but must be able to purchase or lease any digital content available to consumers.  In fact, as an increased focus has been placed on free access, the concerns about Amazon content being unavailable, have been elevated to a higher priority. Libraries throughout the United States want ALA to continue its advocacy and education efforts. 



What have you been able to do so far?

The ALA Washington Office developed an extensive education and advocacy campaign for libraries and their publics.  There was an online petition extensively promoted through social media that was presented to Macmillan Publishers in October, just before the embargo began.  ALA represented library interests and met or spoke a number of times with Macmillan calling for an end to the embargo from the time it was announced until March when it was lifted.  ALA also used its relationships with the other Big Five publishers to ensure that the lines of communication remained open and that no other publisher was considering embargo as a viable sales option.

Despite all these efforts, ALA Washington Office recognizes that libraries have little leverage to change terms or negotiate contracts with favourable or affordable terms. 

A decision was made to seek a legislative solution.  A letter was sent to the Congressional Committee of the Judiciary calling for them to support the concerns of libraries.  Similar efforts have been mounted with state libraries to have both a more local and national focus on the issue.  Most government leaders and stakeholders have been shocked by the inability of libraries to purchase some content—at any price.


What do recent proposals in New York State say? Do you think they offer a model?

I think that the Town Hall in Rhode Island, the legislation in New York State, and the initial investigations in Attorney General Offices from Maryland to Washington State, all create opportunity to raise the issue of free access to government, stakeholders and the press.  Right now, states are battling the pandemic and the economic fallout from stay at home orders and social isolation.  It may be some time before we can revive the issue and regain ground lost during COVID -19.


Is legislation the only answer?

The ALA Washington Office believes that legislation, either at the state or national level is the best response to this issue. Contractual relations between libraries and publishers will always position libraries at a disadvantage. Without policy similar the rights afforded by US copyright law, it will be difficult to achieve full legal ownership to lend, give away, archive, preserve and adapt for people with disabilities and to insure the privacy of readers, viewers and listeners. 


It’s not just the actions of publishers which are causing concerns – what about the impact of major platforms?

OverDrive is the dominant platform in the library market. While there are other options for libraries including New York Public Library’s platform, Library Simplified, there is little competition in the marketplace. For now, OverDrive remains a strong ally of libraries and readers and has been willing to support efforts to eliminate the Macmillan Publishers’ embargo and to gain free access to content.  It is unlikely that in the near future there will be growth in new platform development. The current economy and library budgets will not support expansion.


What potential alliances can libraries build up here?

Libraries must be sure that accurate information about ebook and audiobook lending is presented to the author and agent community and by extension to the reading community.

Allowing publishers to control the narrative as they control the contracts for content will keep libraries in a weak negotiating position.  Rebuilding the initial efforts in Congress and the states will be critical for the future.  Library advocacy must also include authors as advocates. Relations with the Authors Guild, PEN America and other organizations that serve authors will be important for this issue.  

Working with the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) will continue to be critical in the effort to achieve full access to digital content.


Where else do you think libraries are going to need to pay attention?

Libraries are going to need to be aware of the “new normal” of library circulation.  Collecting data understanding the impact of COVID-19 on library use and physical and digital circulation will help highlight future trends in library purchasing and collection development.  Paying attention to the publishing industry and supply chain from author to sales will also help to inform how aggressively libraries can pursue legislative solutions.  Simon and Schuster, one of the Big Five publishers, was up for sale just prior to the pandemic.  Will their sale continue and will others among the Big Five also be at risk for sale and merger? 

The future is less certain than it was in February.  The only thing we know is that the growth in e-reading and the desire for digital content has increased as people are isolated, schools are closed, and people are confined to home. The pandemic is serving as a marketing vehicle for e-content, and as a result we can expect a permanently higher level of e-content demand and use in the post-pandemic period.