December 10, 2023

Librarians React to Simon & Schuster Dropping “Buy It Now” Requirement

Simon & Schuster logoSimon & Schuster (S. & S.) last week announced that it will no longer require libraries to offer a “buy it now” option with the publisher’s ebook titles. In June 2014, following the conclusion of an extensive one-year pilot program, S. & S. became the last of the big five publishers to enable libraries to license its ebook titles. However, in a move that elicited criticism from many librarians, the publisher required participating libraries to make S. & S. titles available for patrons to purchase through the library’s website via OverDrive’s Library BIN (Buy It Now) option, 3M’s Buy and Donate option, Baker & Taylor’s MyLibraryBookstore customized ecommerce sites, or links to S. & S.’s website. In theory, these buy it now links enable patrons to avoid long hold lists while ensuring that a small percentage of their purchases went to their library, rather than to an online retailer such as Amazon. However, many libraries and municipalities have policies in place prohibiting this type of arrangement, and others simply find the library-as-retailer concept objectionable or even unethical.

“I told OverDrive that we would not purchase any of Simon & Schuster’s titles because [City of Austin] Purchasing would not allow this,” explained Sandra Cannon, Division Manager, Collection and Cataloging Services for the Austin Public Library (APL) in Texas. “We were not the only ones not allowing these titles to be purchased. Other public libraries had the same policies. Bottom line, many non-municipal libraries were purchasing and many municipal-owned libraries were not.”

Sarah Houghton, Director of California’s San Rafael Public Library (SRPL) and author of the Librarian in Black blog, said that as a result of S. & S.’s buy it now requirement “our library consortium [MARINet] Board of Directors…was going to recommend against any further licensing of Simon & Schuster products.”

When S. & S. announced that it was making its catalog available to libraries “it was really rewarding to find out the last holdout [of the big six/five] was on board,” said Sue Polanka, Head, Reference & Instruction and Interim Associate University Librarian for Wright State University Libraries and founder of the blog No Shelf Required. “But the requirement for ‘buy it now’ was disappointing and isolated many libraries, particularly those in states where libraries can’t sell books. The mandate to add the buy it now button put many libraries in a difficult spot. The phrase ‘with strings attached’ comes to mind when I think about it.”

Polanka added that she didn’t find this requirement as disappointing as the various loan caps and price hikes that have been imposed on library ebooks by major publishers, including S. & S., stating, “sadly, I think librarians got used to the ebooks with strings attached proposition and settled for [an] ‘at least we can get the books’ type attitude.”

Houghton agreed that ebook pricing and licensing terms continue to be problematic for libraries, but said that the MARINet Board of Directors would begin considering S. & S. licenses now that the requirement has been dropped.

“I still believe the S. & S. licensing terms for libraries (the title is only usable for one year, on a one-copy-one-user model) are draconian as are most publishers’,” Houghton said. “At least now, however, our library consortium will…consider licensing S. & S. titles alongside the other publishers’ ever-shifting licensing requirements, whereas with the buy-it-now requirement our ethics would not have allowed us to do business with the company.”

Library as retailer

In a statement to the press on November 20, S. & S. President and CEO Carolyn Reidy indicated that the requirement was being dropped after receiving feedback from libraries, and that S. & S. hoped that library customers would continue to consider incorporating buy it now options in the future.

“Since we first began offering ebooks to libraries, we have been gratified by the enthusiastic response and valuable feedback we have received from our partners in the library community,” Reidy said. “We very much look forward to serving the broadest possible segment of the library community in order to bring our ebooks to their patrons, while at the same time we hope libraries will consider ‘Buy It Now’ as a new and viable option to generate revenue for the library and provide a service for their patrons.”

The American Library Association praised the move. ALA President Courtney Young stated that the organization appreciated that the publisher was now offering libraries a choice.

“Providing options like these allows libraries to enable digital access while also respecting local norms or policies,” Young said. “This change also speaks to the importance of sustaining conversations among librarians, publishers, distributors, and authors to continue advancing our shared goals of connecting writers and readers.”

The initial requirement, and the move to scrap it, are another sign that “publishers and libraries still haven’t figured out quite how to partner,” consultant and former Douglas County Libraries, CO, Director Jamie LaRue told LJ. S. & S. “came late to the ebook game with libraries. When they did start selling to us, their insistence that libraries sell to consumers what S. & S. used to not sell to libraries at all smacks of arrogance—and a fundamental misunderstanding of library culture.”

LaRue believes that there remains a great deal of potential for ebook sales partnerships between libraries and publishers, if publishers are willing to work with libraries in more creative ways, and to invest in “thoughtful, effective marketing.”

“For instance, we know that displays move materials…. Suppose that S. & S. rolled out a large touch screen pre-populated with their [ebook] content,” LaRue suggested. “Suppose they provided these to libraries? And suppose that patrons could buy the book, at Amazon-competitive prices, then give the book to the library when they were done? This would both promote sales, and make patrons feel good about the purchase. They would see their money stay in their community instead of going to the big conglomerates.”

The concept of library-as-retailer has potential in certain situations, said Polanka, but “it is up to the libraries to determine if this service is something they wish to add for their community. These types of decisions are best made at the local level, not through a national mandate,” she said. “I would support it because it brings revenue to the library. I think it opens up new opportunities for libraries [that] go down the publishing path. Libraries can help their patrons publish and/or market new books. It gives libraries an opportunity to play a greater role in introducing a local author to the community and sharing in the revenue.”

Meanwhile, negotiations and discussions with the Big Five continue. Carolyn Anthony and Erika Linke, co-chairs of ALA’s Digital Content Working Group, wrote in a press announcement that libraries and publishers alike are “still in the early days of this digital publishing revolution, and we hope we can co-create solutions that expand access, increase readership and improve exposure for diverse and emerging voices. Many challenges remain including high prices, privacy concerns, and other terms under which ebooks are offered to libraries.”

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Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.