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One of the great enemies of the public library is departing

September 18, 2020, 2:19 PM UTC

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A lucky Massachusetts town in the 18th century decided to name itself after Benjamin Franklin and then ask its namesake for a gift. Would the famed writer and statesman send the new town of Franklin a bell for its church? Franklin responded that “sense being preferable to sound,” he would instead send a collection of books for all to share. The gift sparked the formation of the first free public library in the United States—and ignited a movement across the country.

There are myriad reasons for America’s economic success and prosperity, but the free public library has to be on the list.

All this history came to mind on Thursday with the news that one of the great enemies of the public library, publishing scion John Sargent, is leaving the scene. Sargent, whose great grandfather founded Doubleday and whose father also ran the publishing house, is stepping down as CEO of Macmillan, one of today’s “Big Five” publishers that dominate the book market.

Blunt and combative, Sargent was one of the executives at the center of the price-fixing scandal over ebooks a decade ago, but more recently had turned his fire on libraries.

To Sargent, ebook-lending libraries were “cannibalizing sales.” After a few troubling experiments, last year he declared that libraries would be allowed to purchase only one copy each of any new Macmillan ebook for the first eight weeks after it came out. The embargo restriction followed years of the big publishers imposing lending limits and raising prices on ebooks for libraries.

“Libraries are paying publishers, but the value the consumer sees—what comes out of the consumer’s pocket—is zero,” Sargent explained at a large library gathering in January. “There are people saying ‘never buy [an ebook] again, you can get it for free.’”

Many libraries began boycotting Macmillan’s ebooks. “While Macmillan’s e-book embargo aims to squeeze a few more sales out of frustrated library users, it unfairly disadvantages e-book readers who use the library out of need,” Washington state librarian Carmi Parker argued in an op-ed in Publishers Weekly. “Equal access to information regardless of ability to pay is foundational to a democratic society and is why public libraries exist. So, we cannot in good conscience support terms that include such inequity.”

Thankfully, Macmillan relented when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced libraries to close and rely even more on ebook lending. But we are still stuck with the vastly different ways the law treats print books versus digital books that allow for publishers to abuse libraries.

We spend a lot of time in Data Sheet focused on the struggles between big tech companies. Of course, what’s at stake in those fights is usually big for all of us too. But there are important battles going on elsewhere. And the fight to keep public libraries vibrant and alive has got to be one of the most important of all.

Aaron Pressman



M to the B. What in the world is going to happen to TikTok? Late on Thursday came news that Chinese owner ByteDance had gotten Treasury Department approval for its plan to have a separate U.S. company run the app with backing from Oracle. And Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom was rumored to be in talks to run the new company. But on Friday morning, the Commerce Department issued a declaration that it would start enforcing an app store ban for new downloads as of September 20 despite the deal.

Probably just a coincidence. The rollout of Apple's new iOS 14 operating system for iPhones on Thursday had a slight hiccup. The software finally lets users pick default apps for browsing and mail, but those settings get reset to Apple's apps every time the phone restarts. Meanwhile, the rollouts of Sony's PS5 and Nvidia's 3000-series graphics cards are spawning shortages and bidding wars.

It's an interesting setup, Mr. Ross. The fraud story at fraud-detection startup NS8 took a new twist on Thursday, as former CEO Adam Rogas was arrested in Nevada and charged with securities and wire fraud. Prosecutors say Rogas used fabricated financial results to raise over $100 million from investors including Lightspeed Ventures. "Rogas was the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse," acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss quipped.

IPO-valanche. Thursday was another busy day for initial public offerings. Telemedicine service Amwell raised $740 million and traded up 28% in its debut. Data analytics firm Sumo Logic raised $326 million and promptly traded up 22%. Still, day two for some other recent IPOs didn't go as well. Snowflake lost 10% and JFrog fell 1%, despite their super-cute stock symbols of SNOW and FROG. Game software developer Unity is next up to start trading after pricing its shares at $52 last night to bring in $1.3 billion.


As the battle over TikTok heats up, don't forget that the Trump administration is also banning WeChat. Chinese-American author Anna Wang explains on her blog why that's the right move:

It’s true that banning WeChat would cut off Chinese immigrants from their friends and family in China, but it is also true that the Chinese propaganda agencies use WeChat for ‘information warfare’ against the U.S. On top of censoring the WeChat users' speeches, agents who work for China are active in various WeChat groups, posing as just another fellow immigrant while trying to obtain information and recruit talents...Determining how to filter out CCP propaganda from WeChat without inconveniencing Chinese Americans is a difficult job. Still, I’m glad to see that WeChat banned. It will be an inconvenience at first, but it will ultimately be good for Chinese Americans. They’ll find ways to reach their friends and family eventually, and they’ll have less of a chance of being brainwashed.


A few great long reads I came across this week:

Bezos’s likely Amazon successor is an executive made in Bezos’s image (Washington Post)
Andy Jassy, the leader of Amazon’s cloud computing business, is now the clear heir apparent to Jeff Bezos after the announced retirement of the retail operations chief.

13 Reasons New York isn’t Dead (& Could Never Be) (Messy Nessy)
No matter the circumstance, “life finds a way” in New York City, to quote the wise words of Jurassic Park. This city always had an almost reptilian talent for regeneration.

Ryan Serhant Selfied, Shared and Streamed His Way to $4 Billion in Sales. Now He’s Building His Own Brokerage (Wall Street Journal)
Like Mr. Serhant, a rising crop of agents are upping the ante on personal branding. But are they overshadowing the real estate?

Class Of COVID-19: The Horrifying Sadness Of Sending My Kids To College During A Pandemic (BuzzFeed)
Having your kids leave the nest has always been sad. In 2020, it’s also terrifying.


iPhone’s new ‘orange dot’ feature warns you when an app is listening By Jeff John Roberts

What’s your biological age? A new app promises to reveal it—and help you slow the aging process By Jeremy Kahn

Apple Watch Series 6 first impressions: A stretchy addition looks great By Aaron Pressman

As investors pull back, this Big Tech darling is flirting with bear territory By Bernhard Warner

By this measure, Snowflake’s IPO wasn’t such a a success after all By Shawn Tully

The reported IPO of TikTok’s Chinese rival is another coup for Hong Kong By Naomi Xu Elegant

NDAs bear blame for some of the worst corporate cover-ups. How that should change By Ariella Steinhorn and Vincent White

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


Some good news for music lovers. The Song Exploder podcast, in which musician Hrishikesh Hirway delves into how great songs were created, is now a series on Netflix (hat tip to Jason Kottke). Episodes go online October 2 featuring Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M., and Ty Dolla $ign, but you can watch the trailer now. Have a great weekend.