Skip Navigation
Back to Navigation

Fair E-Book and E-Audiobook Lending for Libraries

The Urban Libraries Council and the Canadian Urban Libraries Council 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.

ULC/CULC are currently working together to launch an advocacy campaign that will highlight these issues and demand responsive change. We want to work with the major publishers and/or legislators to find a solution that is reasonable for all parties.

Below are key information highlights and resources to help library leaders gain a deeper understanding of this issue, as well as the need to take action.

This page receives updates on an ongoing basis. For suggested content and feedback, please contact

What's the problem?

Digital content is one of the fastest growing areas of borrowing for public libraries. Because of the unfair and restrictive pricing policies being implemented by the “Big 5” e-book/e-audiobook publishers:

• Public libraries will find it difficult if not impossible to fulfill their core mandate of providing universal access to information due to their decreased ability to purchase and license e-books/e-audiobooks.

• Intellectual freedom will be undermined because library patrons/customers will have limited access to information and resources in all its forms.

• Libraries will not be able to buy sufficient copies of popular titles to meet demand, or offer access to all titles in the formats that people want and need.

• The existing, troubling digital divide will widen, because e-content restrictions will impact people who rely on libraries the most — those with limited incomes who cannot afford to purchase e-books and e-audiobooks, and those with disabilities.

What can be done to fix this problem?

Public libraries must stand up for long-held values of universal, equitable access to knowledge and information as well as for intellectual freedom. We must advocate for all people while recognizing that recent publishing decisions will have a detrimental and disproportionate impact on those who rely on us the most. Equity, access, education and individual opportunity are all fundamental to the public library mission–and essential to a healthy, vibrant democracy.

Libraries must vocally oppose these lending practices and pricing models, engage the public and encourage patrons to express their concerns and opposition.


Who are the "Big 5" publishers?

Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Why are the current pricing models "unfair"?

The Big 5 publishers already charge public libraries excessively high prices for e-books. In some cases, libraries are charged three to five times the consumer price.

Additionally, libraries have lost perpetual access to all of the Big 5 publishers’ titles, which is essential to creating and building deep and varied collections and to supporting long-term preservation and archiving.

What do the pricing models look like?


Ebook and audiobook license terms


2-year licensing model


26-use licensing model

Perpetual audiobook license


1 perpetual license available for new e-books, with additional metered licenses available only after an 8-week embargo

52-use/2-year* licensing model

Perpetual audiobook license

Penguin Random House

2-year licensing model

Perpetual audiobook license

Simon & Schuster

2-year licensing model

*Whichever comes first

Is this issue new?

Discussions about the fairness of publishers' e-book/e-audiobook pricing and access for libraries have been ongoing for at least a decade. However, the challenges for libraries intensified rapidly in 2018/2019 as publishers implemented drastic changes to their digital content pricing. Below is a timeline of changes to e-content lending models for libraries:

July 2018 — Tor Books (a division of Macmillan Publishers) implements a four-month embargo on availability of new e-book title for libraries. Learn more >

October 2018 — Penguin Random House ceases perpetual e-book licensing for libraries and implements a two-year metered model. Learn more >

July 2019 — Hachette Book Group ceases perpetual e-book and e-audiobook licensing for libraries and implements a two-year metered model. Learn more >

July 2019 — Blackstone Audio imposes a 90-day embargo on new e-audiobook titles for libraries. Learn more >

August 2019 — Simon & Schuster ceases perpetual e-audiobook licensing for libraries and implements a two-year metered model. Learn more >

November 2019 (pending) — Macmillan Publishers will implement a two-month embargo on all new e-book titles for libraries. Learn more >

Have public libraries contacted the Big 5 publishers?

Yes, but so far to no avail. Individual libraries and national associations have attempted to work with major publishers to develop a purchasing model that works for both sides, but with little success.

Are publishers' high prices and limited-access pricing models justified?

In short, no. Libraries lend e-content to readers on a one-copy-per-user basis, just like print books. However, libraries pay much more than individual readers for e-books/e-audiobooks — a disparity that has no precedent in historical library pricing for physical books.

Publishers, such as Macmillan, have stated that the high pricing and limited lending models are necessary to counterbalance a loss of profits on e-books/e-audiobooks due the library's "free" lending. However, data does not support this claim; in fact, studies show that library users are engaged readers who are more likely to buy books that non-library users. Libraries support the marketing of e-books/e-audiobooks (and their authors) through events, programs, reading lists and library communications.

How can libraries emphasize the integral role they have played in the book industry?

Libraries promote a love of reading for learning and enjoyment, encouraging people to seek out content of all varieties, borrowed AND purchased. Studies show that library users are engaged readers who are more likely to buy books than non-library users. Libraries also have significant purchasing power.

ULC Members Speak Up

Publisher's Decision to Limit eBook Access Is Bad News for Library Patrons
King County Library System blog post by Library Director Lisa Rosenblum

Macmillan Publishers Further Restricts eBook Access for Libraries
Toledo Lucas County Public Library blog post featuring statements from Library Director Jason Kucsma

Libraries Must Draw the Line on E-Books
Publishers Weekly Op-Ed by Former Cuyahoga County Public Library Executive Director Sari Feldman

Message from bibliotheca's SVP of Digital Products Tom Mercer
Email message to bibliotheca customers

Statements and Open Letters from Leading Organizations