Research Outline

The Tensions Between Libraries and Publishers


To give a brief historical overview on the tensions between libraries and publishers, to identify 2-3 insights on why publishers put restrictions on libraries in the digital space, and to identify 2-3 insights on publisher's licensing models for e-book and audio book models for libraries.

Early Findings

  • The growing popularity of e-books have made publishers "more leery of the role of libraries in lending e-books, afraid that the availability of digital books from a library will make it too easy to avoid buying them from a retailer."


  • The "outlook for library e-books was bleak." A 2013 report by the Digital Content Working Group (DCWG) "cataloged a frustrating patchwork of restrictive publisher policies and models, confusing vendor products, and overly complicated user experiences that made up the world of library e-books. "
  • The report noted that some major trade publishers "would not sell e-books to libraries under any terms, or others would do so only at inflated prices or with severe restrictions.
  • "In early 2011, Hachette abruptly pulled its frontlist e-book offerings, and later doubled its library prices on nearly 3,500 backlist e-book titles." Penguin also pulled its entire list in November 2011.
  • Tensions were also raised in March 2011 when HarperCollins announced a new e-book lending policy that limited the length of its library licenses to a maximum of 26 loans per e-title. The revised policy "outraged librarians, who said the new policy will strain budgets and is shortsighted, ignoring the role of libraries in encouraging literacy and building an e-book market for publishers. The issue became so emotional that some librarians organized a boycott of HarperCollins new books over the issue."
  • The ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG) was formed in 2011 and was credited with "helping to break the initial impasse over library e-book lending in 2012, and its lasting achievement was said to be the establishment of a communication channel between library leaders and publishing executives."


  • In July 2018, Tor Books, a leading Sci-Fi publisher and a division of Macmillan, announced that "newly released e-books, will be no longer be available to libraries for lending until four months after their retail on sale date."
  • Officials from Macmillan said the embargo was part of "a test program" to assess the impact of library e-book lending on retail sales." They also mentioned that the publisher's current analysis on eLending indicates that it is having a direct and adverse impact on retail eBook sales."
  • ReadersFirst, a coalition of around 300 libraries, "called the move a 'giant leap backwards' for libraries, and disputed the idea that library e-book lending is hurting Tor's retail e-book sales. ReadersFirst members encouraged librarians and library patrons to email Macmillan reps with their feedback."


  • Macmillan imposed another two month embargo on library e-books across all of the company's imprints that took effect on November 1, 2019.
  • Tensions started flaring again in the library e-book market when Macmillan CEO John Sargent sent a memo in July 2019 to authors and agents, where he appeared to blame libraries for "depressing book sales and author earnings."
  • In the same memo, "Sargent asserted that 45% of Macmillan’s U.S. 'e-book reads' were now 'being borrowed for free' from libraries." He attributed this to different factors, "including the lack of friction in e-lending compared to physical book lending, the active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers, and unnamed apps supporting e-book lending regardless of residence, including borrowing from libraries in different states and countries."
  • Macmillan has "declined several requests over the last year to discuss the embargo, or Macmillan's library e-book program more generally."
  • There are also indications that Amazon is influencing the current tensions over library e-book lending, as there have been reports that "Amazon reps have been showing publishers data to portray library e-book lending in a negative light."