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John Sargent’s Math Just Doesn’t Add Up

Today is the 30th of October. In two days Macmillan will enact its new policy embargoing ebook sales to libraries, a policy which is so unpopular that John Sargent has sent out another letter defending the policy.

Today’s letter makes just as little sense as the one Sargent sent out back in July (PDF). Sargent is apparently convinced that library ebooks – but not the print books in a library’s collection – negatively impact retail ebook sales.

And now to address the windowing. We believe the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed e-books decreases the perceived economic value of a book. I know that you pay us for these e-books, but to the reader, they are free. In the pre-digital world reading for free from libraries was part of the business model. To borrow a book in those days required transportation, returning the book, and paying those pesky fines when you forgot to get them back on time. In today’s digital world there is no such friction in the market. As the development of apps and extensions continues, and as libraries extend their reach statewide as well as nationally, it is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy. This is causing book-buying customers to change habits, and they are fueling the tremendous growth in e-book lending.

I have already previously shown that the idea that only library ebook usage can hurt retail ebook sales doesn’t really make sense given what we know about library patron behavior. To put it simply, when patrons browse libraries, we are looking for availability, not a specific format. Make the ebook more difficult to access, something the publishers have been doing for the past 8 years, and we’ll check out the print book instead.

And as for the supposed hassles of borrowing a print book, that is nonsense on several levels. For starters, Sargent is apparently ignorant of just how easy it is to borrow a book – easier than going to Amazon, in fact. I am now in the habit of requesting library books online, and then picking them up the same day.

But even if that were not the case, Sargent’s position boils down to "it’s too easy to get an ebook, so Macmillan  is adding roadblocks".

This arbitrariness, folks, is why librarians are furious.

And they should be. Macmillan is using a situation they deliberately created – poor ebook sales – as an excuse to impose restrictions on libraries.

The thing is, you know why Macmillan has poor ebook sales, and so do I.

Macmillan has poor ebook sales because in early 2010 they adopted a policy of discouraging ebook sales in favor of print sales.That is when Macmillan conspired  four other publishers as well as Apple to violate antitrust law by forcing Amazon to accept what is called agency pricing, a system where the publishers set the price and retailers are prohibited from deep discounts and sales.

Oh, Sargent dressed it up with excuses about fairly compensating creators, but everyone knows the real reason why Macmillan engaged in the conspiracy. That is established historical fact, and so is the antitrust suit brought by the DOJ, Macmillan settling the lawsuit,  its punishment, and Macmillan’s return to agency in 2014.

To pretend that Macmillan’s poor ebook sales are a result of anything other than Macmillan’s own policies shows a basic lack of awareness of consumer behavior, or a willingness to ignore the facts and lie.

Which do you suppose it is?

image by GoToVan via Flickr

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Xavier Basora October 30, 2019 um 8:40 pm


None of the big 5 sell books. They’re maintaining a lumber distribution monopoly. Consequently ebooks represent an unacceptable affront because the publishing process is flattened and makes them irrelevant.

Thus less lucre to spread around and give family members and friends internships, big advances and so on.

There’s classist element too. How can those gosh awful hicks from flyover country possibly know about literature?

Finally, the big 5 just have never accepted ebooks, never will and trying their best to shove them back in Pandora’s box.
And they’ll disappear for refusing to adapt to new business opportunities

I see the same attitude in Europe.

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