Fighting for libraries and eBooks

Posted 5/12/21

By MARK McKENNEY Given my time in the Rhode Island Senate, it's no surprise that I'm asked, on occasion, about various issues. Recently, I had a question about a bill that's before the House of Representatives, on eBooks. I'm glad to give some insight

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Fighting for libraries and eBooks


Given my time in the Rhode Island Senate, it’s no surprise that I’m asked, on occasion, about various issues. Recently, I had a question about a bill that’s before the House of Representatives, on eBooks. I’m glad to give some insight into the proposed legislation.

The bill, H6246, was heard last week in the Corporations Committee, whose Chairman is Warwick’s own very capable Joseph Solomon, Jr. I thought about testifying on the bill, but the Ethics Code could arguably be read as barring me from that, for the year after I left office. So I decided to pass on testimony. I can weigh in on any issue, though, in a public forum, so I’m doing that.

I love libraries. Long before I ever sought elective office, I worked as a volunteer on literacy and libraries. I served as Chair of the State Library Board for 10 years, then as President of the Providence Community Library (which runs all the neighborhood libraries) for years too. Also, I personally use eBooks, especially digital audiobooks, myself. So when the Rhode Island Library Association first asked me to help out with this issue, last year, I was glad to do so. At their request, I filed a bill in the Senate.

The bill was needed mainly because one of the Big 5 publishing houses, MacMillan, started an embargo on providing new eBooks to libraries. Specifically, MacMillan refused to sell eBooks to libraries at the same time it released them to the public. The company limited how many eBooks libraries could buy, how long they could have them to lend to patrons, and the number of eBook licenses libraries could get on same date they were available to the public. Fortunately, and in large part due to pandemic, MacMillan decided last year that it would be best to drop their embargo.

But the problem remains. It’s bigger than just McMillian, and greater than even the other Big 5 publishers. Amazon is the worst. It is now the dominant eBook platform in the nation, and it won’t sell them to libraries. Or schools.

Amazon is the only major publishing house to do that. But it just flat-out won’t sell eBooks to libraries or schools. Amazon also signs exclusive agreements with authors. So eBook prices go thru the roof. Even the companies that will sell to libraries , though, are gouging them: an eBook that sells to the public for $10 or $15 costs a library $60 or $80 or $100 … if they can get it.

Moreover, despite what Amazon would suggest, not a lot of the money goes back to the authors. So even authors who have exclusives with Amazon are speaking out in support of libraries and free eBook lending.

These predatory behaviors and monopolistic practices need to be dealt with. H6246 won’t cure the problem entirely, but it’s a start.

The General Assembly, with H6246, is saying in pretty simple terms - on behalf of the people of the state - if you want to sell eBooks to Rhode Islanders, you also have to sell them to our libraries and schools.

The bill would require publishing houses to offer libraries reasonable terms on eBooks and digital audiobooks - so they can in turn provide them to users. It would also stop publishers from limiting the number of eBook licenses libraries may purchase on the same date they’re available to the public.

The terms proposed are very reasonable. Publishers would still be able to limit the number of simultaneous users, limit the number of days a user has access, and use technology to prevent a user from keeping an eBook beyond the licensed period, or providing it to other users.

Other states (Maryland, New York) are considering this too, and Rhode Island has taken a leadership role. While publishers will tell you they’ll be hurt, the reality is that these companies – the Big 5, Amazon, and the like - have done extremely well during the pandemic (everyone’s been home watching movies or reading).

They’ll complain, but an image of a “crying wolf” comes to mind. Libraries lending books to patrons hasn’t put publishers out of business. Letting their patrons borrow films hasn’t killed the market for movies, and lending eBooks won’t be a death knell for Amazon and the rest. The fact is - libraries have been marketing their product for them.

There’s a quote I love that’s been attributed to a number of people (among them - Keith Richards!): “Public libraries are the great equalizer”. And it’s true. Not everyone has the affluence to purchase books regularly. Rhode Islanders use their libraries, and they patronize them even more during difficult times (like pandemics). Lots of us use eBooks.

I always keep in mind that, in every legislative district in the state, there are libraries. Call or email your Rep and Senator. Let them know you think H6246 is a good bill. Tell them you want to see it become law. Then use your library card, and borrow an eBook from the library!

Mark McKenney is a former Senator from District 30 in Warwick.

libraries, eBooks


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