Last month, publisher John Wiley & Sons made headlines when it made the controversial decision to abruptly remove over 1,300 ebooks from academic library collections. It did so by removing these titles from ProQuest Academic Complete, a large collection of ebooks that many libraries subscribe to. Earlier this week, Wiley made headlines again when it announced it was temporarily restoring access in the face of public pressure.
As has unfortunately been typical with other changes in how publishers work (or refuse to work) with libraries, authors of these books were left in the dark, with little say on the decision. We have heard from many authors who believe, as we do, that libraries play an extraordinarily important role in preserving and providing access to the materials we write, in all formats, and we believe they should be able to purchase access on reasonable terms so they can fulfill their missions. We’re writing this post to highlight the Wiley situation and outline some ways that authors can make their voices heard.
The Wiley Ebook Situation
Wiley’s move was particularly shocking since the removal of access coincided with the beginning of the academic term. Countless students who were relying on library access to textbooks they needed for their academic courses lost this access exactly when these texts were most needed. It is increasingly common for publishers of academic texts like these to refuse to sell electronic copies to libraries at all, which seems to be the tactic Wiley was pursuing here, leaving these students with no low cost alternative (and in fact, Wiley reportedly refuses to sell textbooks to libraries at all, in either digital or print format). This left instructors scrambling to find new texts to assign, redesign syllabi, and otherwise adopt their courses to a loss of access to the Wiley texts, at a moment when their attention should have been focused on teaching and welcoming students.
Unsurprisingly, the decision was widely condemned by librarians, civil society organizations, and university libraries. #ebookSOS, which has been working to highlight these kinds of challenges for several years, organized several efforts in protest.
Authors Alliance began working with #ebookSOS to raise awareness of this issue among authors whose works were removed from library collections in an effort to encourage Wiley to reverse its decision and provide assurances that it will not take measures like these in the future. The authors we’ve heard from want their books to be read, to serve learning, and to be used to share knowledge with the world. Some of these authors view Wiley’s decision as a betrayal, and indeed, it is hard to square with Wiley’s asserted commitment to “[e]nabling discovery by supporting access to knowledge and fueling the engines of research.”
Earlier this week, Wiley relented. It announced that it had decided to temporarily reverse course, restoring access to the removed texts until June 2023, when they will once again be removed. Wiley apologized for the “disruption” the move caused to students, libraries, and instructors, admitting that it caught them off guard. But while this may ease the burden on instructors and students for now, librarians have resoundingly found the measure to be insufficient. Temporarily restoring access to these particular texts does not solve the fundamental problem that large publishers like Wiley can—and do—unilaterally and without warning remove books from digital library shelves, even if their motive is purely to increase their own profits. We’ve continued to hear from authors who have strong reservations both about Wiley’s decision and how it went about making it. If you are an author published by Wiley and have thoughts about its decision to remove access to these ebooks, we would love to hear from you: Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Authors Can Do
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a publisher has acted unilaterally to make its ebooks less accessible to the detriment of readers and authors. Trade publisher MacMillan at one point announced it would employ a two-week embargo before libraries could acquire newly published titles as ebooks. Similarly, rising ebook prices during the pandemic hurt many students who relied on these works to learn. Yet, as Wiley’s response to the outcry following its announcement shows, a concerted campaign to pressure these publishers can have results. For example, MacMillan ultimately abandoned its plans for an ebook embargo following a boycott of all its ebook titles by various library systems.
Most authors have little say in how publishers distribute their works. Publishing contracts typically give publishers broad discretion to determine when, how, and on what terms authors’ books are sold. While it is understandable that authors will not be involved in every decision about distribution, authors have placed trust in publishers that they will make reasonable decisions. So, what can authors do?
First, as the Wiley ebook situation has shown, authors’ voices do matter. If you have concerns about your book being available to libraries, speak out! One reason that Authors Alliance exists is to help amplify your voice and help publishers understand your views on how their legal and policy decisions affect your interests in making your books available to the world. If you’re wondering about how we might help, please get in touch—we’d love to hear from you. Second, authors do have an opportunity to influence how their books are shared when negotiating their publishing contracts. There are no guarantees that a publisher will accept your proposed contract language (and we suspect most will be resistant). But given that several publishers have recently demonstrated their unwillingness to make reasonable distribution decisions, it seems to us equally reasonable to ask for contractual assurances that they will continue to sell your book to libraries on reasonable terms, in all formats. For some language to serve as a starting point, #ebooksos has shared their model contract language for authors, here.