Librarians have been looking at the data and they say Macmillan’s recent claim that library e-book lending is having a “direct and adverse” impact on science fiction publisher Tor’s retail e-book sales appears to be more fiction than science.
Last month, Macmillan officials unexpectedly announced a four-month embargo on e-book editions of new Tor titles in libraries, which they said was part of a test. But weeks later, with no further communication or engagement from Macmillan officials, librarians and vendors have started digging in to their own numbers.
“We certainly aren’t having a negative impact on sales,” maintained Brian Kenney, a PW columnist and director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, after looking at the numbers from his own library. Kenney said the combined OverDrive platform of the Westchester Library System, which serves 38 libraries in the populous suburbs of New York City, holds just 38 copies of Tor e-books.
Michael Blackwell, director of the St. Mary’s County Library (Md.) has also been looking at the numbers. As an organizer of the group ReadersFirst, a coalition of more than 300 libraries dedicated to improving e-book access for library patrons, Blackwell has been informally polling fellow ReadersFirst libraries about their Tor e-book holdings. Given the numbers, he said, it’s almost inconceivable that library lending could be adversely impacting Tor’s retail e-book sales.
At the high end of the spectrum: the New York Public Library reports holding 1,168 e-book editions of 500 individual Tor titles; The Brooklyn Public Library holds 1,096 copies of 614 Tor titles.
Further down the list, The Sno-Isle (Wash.) Libraries hold 812 copies of 685 titles; The Central Ohio Digital Downloads Collaboration (which represents 18 systems) holds 690 copies of 396 Tor titles; The Massachusetts Library System holds 160 copies of 147 titles; The Santa Clara (Calif.) County District Library holds 182 copies of 182 Tor titles. And the Maryland Digital Library, which serves Blackwell’s small library, holds 149 copies of 45 titles.
While those numbers may seem sizable in the aggregate, the potential impact on an author-by-author basis is small. Blackwell points to one of Tor’s flagship authors, John Scalzi, as an example of how much reach newly published Tor e-books have in public libraries. Scalzi’s most recent book, Head On, was published in April to great reviews (including a starred review in PW).
“In Maryland libraries, counting both individually owned and consortium titles, 3.5 million registered users share access to 17 copies,” Blackwell told PW. NYPL has four copies of Head On; Brooklyn has seven; Broward County has five; Sno-Isle has four. And that, Blackwell pointed out, is for an author at the top of the Tor list.
Data from OverDrive, the world’s leading library e-book service provider, also raises questions about what Macmillan hopes to learn from its embargo.
In looking at the roughly 168 titles Tor has released over the last 12 months, Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, told PW that the average Tor author has only about 50–60 total e-book copies available to borrow “from the thousands of library catalogues” OverDrive supplies worldwide.
“In other words, if you’re in the middle of the Tor list, within your first year of publication, from the thousands of library catalogues out there, you will only have about 50 total copies of your e-book available to discover or borrow,” he explained.
And those numbers, of course, include larger libraries that hold multiple copies of the top authors on the Tor list. The reality, he says, is that many Tor authors don’t have any e-books available at all in public libraries, and most libraries don’t hold any Tor e-books. On the OverDrive platform, “the most typical number of unit holdings for a library for Tor e-books,” Potash said, “is zero.”
But that’s not only for Tor authors, Potash added. “The reality is, if you’re an author, unless you’re on the New York Times bestseller list, due to limited budgets and the volume of e-books entering the market, you’ll have a hard time finding your e-book in most libraries. And if you can find it, and you have a valid library card, you’re lucky if it’s available.”
Potash said the average wait time to borrow an e-book of a current New York Times bestseller is about 10 weeks.
Macmillan officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But as librarians look more closely at their own data, questions abound. Is this a Tor “test” being done with Macmillan’s permission? Or is it a Macmillan test using Tor? And what exactly is being tested by treating e-book readers differently in libraries than print readers? What’s the purpose of an embargo for new titles for the first four months?
Stable, but Changing?
Perhaps the most pressing question for librarians, however, is whether any of Macmillan’s Big Five counterparts are preparing changes, or perhaps their own “tests,” as well. After years of relative stability, is the library e-book market about to become contentious again?
Simon Schuster officials declined to comment specifically on whether any new models or terms are under consideration. A spokesperson told PW only that the publisher is always “evaluating our sales and sales models in our different channels of distribution.”
A Hachette spokesperson said the publisher “believes strongly” in public libraries, and that the publisher is “proud” to make Hachette e-books available for borrowing in public libraries. “At the same time, we continually reassess our business arrangements and cannot rule out a change in the future, if we were to independently determine that another approach would both satisfy borrowers’ needs and be sustainable from a business standpoint.”
Officials at Penguin Random House did not rule out changes, either. But judging from recent history, it’s likely any future changes from Penguin Random House will be to offer libraries more flexibility. PRH currently licenses e-books to libraries on a perpetual access model—in other words, no lend limits or expiration dates on titles. The model has garnered mixed reviews from librarians, who like the option of perpetual access but don’t need to keep (and pay for) multiple digital copies of once-popular bestsellers after they have stopped circulating. Earlier this year, the publisher executed a buyback program in which libraries could exchange e-book copies of titles that were no longer circulating for credit to be used on other PRH e-book titles. And, in 2016, PRH reduced its frontlist e-book prices and capped them at $65 per copy, down from $85 (in comparison, Tor’s frontlist e-books often cost libraries $60 and expire after two years).
Meanwhile, since July of last year, HarperCollins, has been testing a pay-per-use option for some of its backlist titles, which library leaders have welcomed. Harper executives said the program is meeting expectations, and succeeding in surfacing deeper backlist titles within library catalogues, which was a goal of the program.
In terms of its frontlist and the state of the library e-book market, Adam Silverman, Senior Director of Digital Business, said HarperCollins was satisfied at the moment with its e-book lending model, and had no plans to make changes.
“The market seems fairly stable,” Silverman told PW. “We haven’t seen any shifts.”