The Rhode Island Library Association (RILA) hosted a lively and productive roundtable discussion of current ebook selling practices to libraries on Monday, February 3, 2020 at East Providence Public Library. Attendees included librarians, library stakeholders, patrons, and special guest U.S. House Representative David Cicilline.
The purpose of the roundtable was to discuss recent changes in the ebook publishing industry and communicate to the Congressman how these changes are negatively affecting the library patrons in his district and across the country. Congressman Cicilline is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the Chair of the Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law (ACAL) Subcommittee, which is conducting a bipartisan investigation into competition in digital markets. RILA thought it fitting to have this discussion with him and bring to his attention how these publishers’ policies are affecting libraries and the public they serve.
RILA President, Julie Holden, began the session with opening remarks summarizing the current challenges to libraries: last November, Macmillan Publishing placed an embargo on libraries such that each library system is only allowed to purchase a single license of a new ebook during the first 8 weeks of publication. (Which means that Rhode Island libraries, which make up one library consortium, must share one copy of a new ebook.) This limitation puts even tighter restrictions on libraries, which have been facing challenges to providing cost-effective and equitable access to ebooks for its patrons for years. For example, Amazon, the fifth-largest publisher of ebooks, refuses to sell ebooks to libraries at all. Those publishers that do sell to libraries often charge up to five times more than what it charges the average ebook customer, and libraries only have access to those titles for a certain period of time or a certain number of checkouts, after which the title must be purchased again.
Congressman Cicilline then spoke about his efforts in Congress and the bipartisan investigation that the ACAL Subcommittee is conducting into digital markets. The investigation began last June and the Subcommittee has been holding hearings and producing documents focused on three main areas: identifying and documenting competition problems, assessing whether dominant companies are engaging in anticompetitive behavior, and determining whether existing laws, policies, and enforcement procedures are adequate to address any issues uncovered by the investigation. The Subcommittee has already held five hearings looking at the free and diverse press, innovation and entrepreneurship, the role of data and privacy in competition, perspectives of the antitrust agencies, and competitors in the digital economy.
Stephen Spohn, Executive Director of Ocean State Libraries (OSL), provided an update on the current state of electronic materials purchasing and the challenges the state-wide consortium faces. Stephen used blocks to illustrate how, unlike with print materials, where a library or library consortium may purchase as many copies as it likes at the same price as the average consumer - or even at a discounted price - the consortium is only able to purchase licenses to electronic materials at significantly higher prices. Despite the increase in price, the library or consortium still doesn’t own the material - they only own the license to use it for a specified amount of time, after which they must purchase another license. In the end, libraries end up paying three times more than the average consumer for ebooks and six times more for audiobooks. The result of this purchasing model is that, while ebooks make up only 3.2% of the OSL collection, they make up about 15% of the budget. Embargoes, such as the one Macmillan has employed, only exacerbate this problem.Stephen’s opening remarks summarized the state’s libraries’ concerns well: “Libraries are a public good. We are not a corporation; we’re a public good; we are part of democracy. We ensure that everyone has access to knowledge, technologies, and resources to participate in our democracy and to access opportunities that are hallmarks of our nation. Limiting access to books for library users is immoral, unethical, and counter to the very principles upon which our nation was founded. And embargoes that prevent or curtail library purchasing and price fixing by large corporations must end.”
Following these opening statements, the floor was opened for discussion by the roundtable members of how these digital sales practices are affecting patrons directly. For example, Jill Smith spoke of her son, who relies on OSL’s ebook and digital audiobook collection, and her mother, who is visually impaired and uses the state’s Talking Books program as well as OSL’s digital audiobook collection. She also stated that, as a licensed therapist, she often refers her clients to ebooks and digital audiobooks on mental health topics that they can access privately on OSL’s eZone. She expressed concern over the effects of the Macmillan embargo on her family’s and patients’ abilities to access digital materials. Charlotte Toolan spoke of the frustration of wanting to read a new series, only to find that the third and fourth books in the series were available on the eZone, but the first two books were not. She discussed this with OSL staff and learned that, because of low circulation, OSL had decided not to repurchase the licenses to the earlier books in the series - but then that means that the money spent on the later books has likely been wasted, as no one wants to start a series midstream. Karen Mellor, Chief of Library Services for Rhode Island, described an example in which a young student would have to wait 6 to 8 months for the next ebook in a popular series - she would be in different grade by the time she was able to access that title.
Throughout the discussion, Congressman Cicilline was engaged and asked a lot of questions. At the end of the session, he requested copies of statements and examples of the effects discussed in order to weave them into the ACAL Subcommittee investigation. He remarked that the concerns raised during the roundtable discussion provided great examples of why issues of digital market dominance matter to regular people.