Authorship and Ebook Licensing: Introducing the Library Ebook Pledge

Posted July 12, 2023

Authors rarely have meaningful rights to say how their publisher licenses or distributes their book. 

A typical publishing contract will grant the publisher broad discretion to determine the format, price and sublicensing terms under which an author’s book is made available. It can be hard to negotiate for the right to have a say over those terms. Even contracts designed to prioritize authors’ rights, such as the Authors Guild model trade contract,  don’t contemplate an author exercising much control over these matters, and leave most publication and distribution details “as Publisher determines.”

In many cases, ceding control can be OK as long as the interests of the publisher and author are tightly aligned. It’s why we recommend authors pay close attention to the mission and practices of their publisher before signing a contract. But even when a publisher purports to share the author’s interests, this could change in the future, and information the publisher provides about itself can be misleading.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see how those interests diverge until it’s too late. For example, recall last year when academic publisher Wiley decided to remove some 1,300 ebooks from online library collections. We quickly found that many authors of those books objected strongly, and joined us in a letter that outlined concerns and expressed dismay that Wiley, an academic publisher that supposedly prioritizes” access to knowledge,” would make such an aggressive and profit-maximizing decision. But under their contracts, those authors had no legal grounds to push back. 

Library distribution in particular is an area of concern. Libraries provide an important way for authors to connect with readers, and provide a means of access to their books for many people who might otherwise never read them. Libraries also serve an important democratic function in supporting widespread learning that we all benefit from. We’ve written several times over the years about challenges that libraries face in licensing ebooks, and it’s why we’ve supported model state legislation to address the problem and also why we’ve supported models like controlled digital lending that allow for limited access outside of the licensing model.

In addition to basic economic concerns about gouging libraries on price (in some cases publishers have decided to charge libraries 10x the consumer list price for ebook access), some publishers have imposed a variety of other terms that we find unreasonable. This includes, for example, only offering ebooks to libraries through large bundles of content rather than title-by-title, which forces libraries to buy access to books that aren’t necessarily relevant for their community (a practice which also obfuscates and dilutes per-title sales and consequently author royalties). Or limiting access for use only on platforms controlled by the publisher, which can contain significant compromises for reader privacy. Perhaps the most frustrating is the flat refusal to deal – with some publishers refusing to sell some ebooks to libraries at all, in the hopes of driving some would-be library readers (likely a very small percentage of them)  into buying a personal copy. 

Introducing the Library Ebook Pledge

What libraries need to do their jobs in the digital environment isn’t all that complicated. For physical books, libraries have been successful in reaching readers  because they have had clear rights to purchase, lend, and preserve. Publishers have limited, by contract, libraries’ ability to do those same activities with ebooks, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why we’ve been pleased to work with Knowledge Rights 21 and Library Futures to outline twelve basic principles that represent a reasonable approach to ensuring that libraries can continue to do their jobs online.

We know that many publishers care deeply about the role of libraries in supporting research, education and learning. This Pledge, which can be viewed here,  offers a way for those publishers to express their support and commitment to 21st century libraries, so libraries can provide meaningful preservation of and access to ebooks for their readers. We’re encouraged to see some publishers already signing on, and encourage others to do so as well.

We also think this pledge is a valuable tool for authors who care about access to their works. While negotiating for control over distribution can be a challenge, we are hopeful that authors can try to incorporate these principles into their contracts and use this pledge to ask publishers to publicly communicate their intent to license ebooks in ways that will account for the public interest.