Macmillan Ebook Embargo

Along with other libraries, Lexington County has made the decision to temporarily suspend purchasing ebooks, audiobooks and print materials from Macmillan Publishers. Starting in November, Macmillan implemented an embargo on ebooks, limiting libraries of all sizes, from purchasing more than ONE copy of any title for eight weeks after its release.

We know popular ebooks, even with multiple copies in our collection, can have lengthy waits. Imagine even longer wait periods for some of your favorite authors, such as Liane MoriartyNora RobertsJeffrey Archer and Rainbow Rowell. The measures Macmillan has taken will certainly exacerbate this issue, which is why public libraries across North America are trying to work with Macmillan and other publishers so that, together, we can continue to promote literacy and equitable access.

At Lexington County Public Library, we’ve observed a trending increase in the circulation of digital content and it continues to rise. There was over a 30% increase from fiscal year 2017–2018 to 2018–2019 and since July of this year we’ve had a 21% increase in circulation compared to this time last year.

Digital technologies are becoming increasingly inseparable from the ways that people learn, work and interact. The library’s unique ability to create equitable access for information and knowledge is more important than ever. Needless to say, our community is strongest when all individuals have the same opportunity to further their personal, educational and professional goals.

One of the great things about ebooks is that they can become large-print books with only a few clicks and most electronic readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges.

Because portable devices are light and easy to hold, ebooks are more accommodating for people who have physical disabilities.  Digital Content also allows access to individuals who can’t make it to the library due to transportation issues or scheduling conflicts.

When a library purchases an ebook we are actually buying a license. Each publishing house has its own price model but most publishers use a two-year model.

The price libraries pay for an ebook isn’t the same as it would be for a consumer. For example, the popular title Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is about $15 for a consumer to purchase.

The library is charged $55 for 24 months of usage. If the library wants to retain the title in ebook format, we’ll have to pay an additional $55 for two more years.

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Why has Macmillan Publishers decided to embargo ebooks sold to libraries?

Macmillan believes that every ebook checked out from a library is a lost sale and that ebook lending hurts the bottom line. In his memo announcing the embargo, Macmillan CEO John Sargent accused libraries of “cannibalizing” sales and actively “marketing … to turn purchasers in to borrowers.”

Do publishers and authors lose money by selling ebooks to libraries?

No. In fact, consumer sales for ebooks have leveled off while sales to libraries have increased. While there’s no data to support Macmillan’s claim that increased ebook checkouts result in lost sales, there’s data that shows that library borrowers are the same people who buy books.

Will an eight-week embargo increase individual ebook sales?

Making people wait an additional two months to borrow an ebook from a library will not necessarily increase consumer sales.


There are several reasons why people won’t immediately buy an ebook. Borrowers already wait a long time for ebooks they place on hold, even when hold lists number in the hundreds. Some will just go to another title on their long reading list. Some can’t afford to purchase hardcovers or ebooks, so they won’t buy them in any scenario.


While some library users may choose to buy an ebook to avoid an even longer holds queue, which could generate a few sales, Macmillan’s embargo guarantees they will loose library sales for eight weeks.

What value do libraries bring to ebook demand?

Libraries bring indisputable value in marketing books and cultivating readers — at no cost to authors or publishers. Every time a library displays a new title on its new release shelf, holds an author talk or book signing by a new writer, hosts book clubs or promotes a new title on social media, it provides free advertising that, cumulatively, is worth millions of dollars. This benefits readers, publishers and authors, especially newly published authors whose work would otherwise be difficult to discover. Libraries would be much less likely to market titles that are under embargo by a publisher.

If library patrons already wait for ebooks, why is an embargo such a bad thing?

Limiting access to new titles for libraries in any format means limiting readers’ access to information. Such an arbitrary embargo sets a dangerous precedent. Macmillan’s planned embargo now applies only to new titles, but what’s next? The embargo is eight weeks now; how long might the next embargo delay access for library patrons? Macmillan’s policy is disconcerting because it could influence other publishers, most of whom currently support ebooks for all.

Who will specifically be affected by this embargo?
  • All library ebook borrowers will be affected by longer waits on new titles published by Macmillan as well as public libraries and their staff who bear the brunt of reader and patron complaints.
  • Library patrons with visual impairment or learning disabilities such as dyslexia will have delayed access to a digital format that offers adjustable text size and spacing.
  • Library patrons with certain physical disabilities will lack access to ebooks on portable devices that are lighter and easier to hold.
Will this boycott only apply to Macmillan Publishing ebooks?

No. Lexington County Public Library will suspend purchasing all digital content and print material from Macmillan.

How long will it last?

This boycott will last for at least 12 weeks or until Macmillan changes its policy. Should Macmillan cancel its embargo, we will immediately lift the suspension.

Will I be able to check out titles that were already in the catalog?

Yes. The boycott only applies to the purchasing of new materials. Any materials that were already in circulation will continue to be accessible.

When will I start to see the effects of the boycott?

For a limited period during or after the boycott, you may not have access to new Macmillan titles. Titles are typically ordered months in advance so the timing of the delays may vary.

Do any other publishers embargo sales to libraries?

Macmillan Publishers is the only one of the “Big Five” publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) to announce an embargo on new ebook sales to libraries. However, ALA is concerned that other publishers may follow suit and institute embargoes of their own to libraries, which already pay top dollar for ebooks.

How much do libraries pay for ebooks?

Publishers have various business models for ebook lending but all charge libraries more for an ebook than a consumer pays — often up to five times the retail price of an ebook. Libraries purchase enough copies of an ebook title to meet the demand they anticipate at their library as their budget permits.


However, publishers don’t sell ebooks to libraries; they lease copies of a title for a contracted amount of time, usually two years. Once the license is up, the library looses access to the content and has to repurchase the ebook at the same high price.

What do libraries want?

Libraries want to fulfill their mission: to ensure that all people have access to the world’s knowledge through our nation’s libraries — regardless of format. Access to ebooks for libraries should neither be denied nor delayed by anyone. Period.


Here’s a list of libraries across the nation that are participating in boycotting Macmillan.

Is there room for libraries and publishers to negotiate terms of sale for ebooks?

Yes, the American Library Association (ALA) and other leaders within the library community have held discussions with publishers since 2012. “An embargo is not a good way to start a conversation,” Mary Ghikas, executive director commented to reporters at the press conference announcing ALA’s #eBooksForAll petition.

What are libraries doing to oppose the embargo?
  • Library professionals across the country have sent individual letters to Macmillan CEO John Sargent objecting to the embargo.
  • Library associations (state and nation-wide) have made their own statements denouncing Macmillan’s embargo.
  • Advocates for #eBooksForAll have written letters to the editor, like this one by King County Library System Director Lisa Rosenblum that ran in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Thousands are showing support for #eBooksForAll in libraries on social media.
  • Now, libraries are encouraging their patrons to sign the #eBooksForAll petition to cancel the embargo.

Sources: American Library Association, Charleston County Public Library and Oconee County Public Library