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Macmillan Can’t Adapt to the Market, So It’s Forcing Customers to Adapt to it

Macmillan CEO John Sargent is back in the news this week with yet another attempt at defending Macmillan’s new policy of windowing library ebooks. This time, he’s shown us just how bad Macmillan is at adapting to the digital age.

The new policy, which went into effect on 1 November, restricts libraries to only buying a single copy of a newly published Macmillan title during the first 8 weeks after it is published. Libraries are charged a ridiculous $30 per copy, rather than the ruinous $60 per copy Macmillan usually charges.

Sargent spoke with librarians last week the COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Agencies) meeting in Hartford CT on 4 November. According to PW he justified the new windowing in part by saying:

Sargent reportedly told the group of about 10 state librarians that, based on “anecdotal” data, Macmillan believes that “if library users cannot gain access to a new ebook from their library, 8% of those waiting will likely buy the ebook.”

As with Sargent’s other claims, he has provided no evidence to back up his assertion, leaving us nothing to address.

COSLA issued a press release about the meeting, noting that Sargent “likened the ebook marketplace to that for major motion pictures in that new releases have the greatest value in their first few weeks and their initial release should allow for the greatest return on both creative and business investment. The availability of ebooks through libraries, which may be perceived as being free, is, in Macmillan’s opinion, the major driver in the consumer decline.”

This, on the other hand, I can address. While his belief is the accepted practice for Big Five publishers, what it actually represents is Big Five inability to monetize their backlist, and not whether the backlist has value. It’s a sign that Sargent is stuck in the pre-internet era, when the publishers still marketed to the buyers for the bookstore chains, and not the public.

Back in that era, publishers pushed to get their books on to store shelves because that is how consumers found them. That’s not how readers buy books any more, and in fact it’s not how libraries are buying Macmillan ebooks, either.

I was browsing a couple local public libraries today, seeing how many new ebooks they were buying. What I found was that my public library (Prince William) actually bought more Macmillan backlist in the past 6 months than frontlist.  Of the nine fantasy and SF ebooks acquired in the past 6 months, three were new and six were old – as much as eight years old.

The Fairfax County Public Library showed a similar split (and now that they’ve joined the Macmillan embargo, it will probably get worse).

BTW, another thing I noticed is that OverDrive has the weirdest definition of "fantasy"; they apparently think it includes SF genres such as dystopian (Ready Player One is cataloged by OD as fantasy, for example.)

In any case, Sargent’s analogy about movie releases points to the same failing mindset that came up with the new windowing policy, and in fact also gave us agency ebook pricing in the retail market.

Sargent (and the folks around him) can’t figure out how to adapt to the market and sell what customers want, so he has decided to arbitrarily impose restrictions to force his customers to buy what he wants to sell.

In 2010 Sargent conspired with the other major publishers to give us agency ebook pricing because they wanted to sell print books. The market largely ignored this effort, which is why Macmillan has poor ebook sales even though there’s a huge ebook market.

Now Sargent is arbitrarily imposing restrictions on library ebooks because, again, he wants to force his customers to do things his way, rather than adapt to serve the market. He sees the early release window as being the most valuable, so he blocks libraries from buying ebooks then (even though they weren’t buying Macmillan ebooks then anyway).

Something tells me that isn’t going to work any better this time than before.

image  by jvoss via Flickr

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Xavier Basora November 11, 2019 um 1:24 am


Spot on. In fact this obnoxious behaviour is why we should stand back. Let tradpublishing burn itself to the ground just to spite customers.

The back and mid lists are the most profitable sources of income. Tradpub should be uploading titles in audio, ebook as well print like pitbulls on crystal meth.
But no paper is magical; never mind what the readers are them for free.


Disgusting Dude November 11, 2019 um 6:11 am

Sargent’s strategy is quite "timely".
He is reducing Tor’s library presence just as Baen is (finally) getting their whole library onto Overdrive.
So libraries boycotting MacMillan and Tor have a place to put their money.
BAEN thanks you, Mr Sargent.

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