One of the five major book publishers in the United States has announced it is curtailing public libraries’ access to e-books, and librarians in DeKalb and Fulton counties are joining those nationally pushing back.

The new embargo by Macmillan Publishers took effect Nov. 1 and limits libraries to just one copy of newly released titles in digital formats, followed by an eight-week hold on buying additional copies. Since the Macmillan decision, publishers Blackstone Audio, Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster have announced plans to implement similarly restrictive programs.

Alison Weissinger, director of the DeKalb County Public Library, said that her system is figuring out the best tactic for resisting the embargo and other increasing restrictions on digital media.

“We’re working together to push back against the publishers and let them know that none of us like this and that some in the [nationwide] system are choosing to boycott,” she said. “We need some kind of solution that’s going to be more fair to public libraries, and a fair model to provide what our patrons want.”

The Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System in a recent newsletter highlighted Macmillan’s e-book move and encouraged patrons to email the publishers “in support of public libraries and against the embargo.” The newsletter said the embargo will result in longer wait times for titles to appear and to be available on holds.

Director Gabriel Morley said in a written statement that the library system “is hopeful that the embargo of Macmillan titles will be of minimal consequence to our patrons.”

Macmillan says the embargo is protecting its revenue streams. In a letter to authors and agents on July 25, the company stated: “Historically we have been able to balance the great importance of libraries with the value of your work. The current e-lending system does not do that. We believe our new terms are a step toward reestablishing that balance.”

Elton John’s autobiography is among Macmillan’s recent e-book releases.

Among Macmillan’s recent e-book releases are Elton John’s biography “Me” and “In Hoffa’s Shadow,” a well-reviewed memoir about a suspect in the disappearance of Teamsters Union head Jimmy Hoffa.

Julie Walker, state librarian for the Georgia Public Library Service, said the embargo is a significant restriction. She said the it “will harm readers across Georgia, because all libraries, no matter the size of the community they serve, will be limited to one copy. That means one copy to share for the 1 million people living in Atlanta/Fulton County.

“Clearly, this policy negatively impacts those in our communities who rely on libraries for access to books and resources they couldn’t afford otherwise. This issue impacts all users of Georgia’s 407 public libraries,” she said.

There is little doubt that the popularity of books in digital formats has skyrocketed. Pew Research says one in five adults in the United States has listened to an audiobook and one in four has read an e-book, continuing a six-year trend of double-digit growth.

“Like many industries, libraries have been disrupted by the technological revolution,” said Walker. “Over the past five years, the popularity of e-books has exploded. What once began as a complementary collection to our core print collection has become an essential service for many. Early literacy experts agree that e-books for early readers contribute positively to the development and retention of reading skills.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Urban Libraries Council responded to the embargo with a statement saying it “strongly opposes the recent decisions of major e-book and e-audiobook publishers to impose increased restrictions on digital lending models for libraries, including embargoes on new content and ceasing ongoing (perpetual) licensing.”

Weissinger at the DeKalb library system said that a number of public libraries around the country are actively boycotting Macmillan and other publishers as a result of the embargo, “but we’ve decided we’re not going to go there yet. We’re watching the situation. This is just one more thing in a string of restrictions on how we are able to buy and distribute digital content.”

Most library patrons in DeKalb County have yet to notice the changes, according to Weissinger.  “I think it’ll take some time unless you’re really paying attention to publishing industry news,” she said. “We anticipate that in a couple of weeks people will see that we’ve only bought one copy of certain things and they’ll want to know why.”

–Kevin C. Madigan