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E-book battle: King County Library boycotts major publisher

caption: An e-book reader. E-books are popular items in the King County Library System.
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An e-book reader. E-books are popular items in the King County Library System.
KUOW photo/Gil Aegerter

Starting today the King County Library System, the largest e-book lender in the country, will no longer buy new electronic releases from Macmillan Publishers.

The decision comes after Macmillan announced libraries would have to repurchase new e-books every two months, instead of every two years.

Library executive director Lisa G. Rosenblum said Macmillan’s new policy would mean the library could afford far fewer e-books and people might have to wait years to read a copy.

"For us to have one copy of a title for two months,” Rosenblum said, “our holds would stack up to the point we'd have thousands of holds for one copy of a book."

Macmillan said libraries are "cannibalizing” e-book sales but Rosenblum said the publisher hasn't provided the data to back that up.

"We typically will pay four or five times more for one copy of an e-book than you, the consumer,” Rosenblum said.

"What Macmillan, in a sense, is doing is it's asking us to waste public dollars, buying more copies of a book than we would normally buy.”

The American Library Association has denounced the publisher’s decision and an online petition has over 160,000 signatures.

Libraries joining KCLS in the boycott include the Nashville Public Library and the Maryland Digital Library.

Seattle Public Library is not boycotting Macmillan but issued a warning to patrons to brace for increased hold times on new e-books.

Rosenblum accused Macmillan of playing games.

"They claim that they had spoken to library leaders, I being one of them, and had presented the plan months ago and we agreed to it,” Rosenblum said, “and in fact, that never happened. We never agreed to it."

Macmillan hasn't yet responded to a request for comment.

Last year KCLS bought almost 4,000 e-books from Macmillan for a total of nearly $200,000.

Rosenblum said the library will spend that money on Macmillan print books and other publishers – who she wants to send a message to with the boycott.

"There's a higher principle involved,” she said. “That's why we're doing this, because we don't want the other four publishers to go this route. To do so profoundly changes the public library system.”

KCLS is the top digital circulating library system in the country, with about 4 million e-book checkouts last year.

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