Amazon Killing Libraries?
The quasi-monopoly power of the world's largest bookstore is problematic. Maybe.
The most-read story at the Washington Post this morning was Geoffrey A. Fowler‘s “Want to borrow that e-book from the library? Sorry, Amazon won’t let you.” It was not exactly the story I was expecting.
Mindy Kaling has gone missing from the library.
I was looking forward to reading the comedian’s new story collection, “Nothing Like I Imagined.” So I typed Kaling’s name into the Libby app used by my public library to loan e-books. But “The Office” star’s latest was nowhere to be found.
Fowler could scarcely have picked a less powerful example to evoke my sympathies had he tried but I pressed on.
What gives? In 2020, Kaling switched to a new publisher: Amazon. Turns out, the tech giant has also become a publishing powerhouse — and it won’t sell downloadable versions of its more than 10,000 e-books or tens of thousands of audiobooks to libraries. That’s right, for a decade, the company that killed bookstores has been starving the reading institution that cares for kids, the needy and the curious. And that’s turned into a mission-critical problem during a pandemic that cut off physical access to libraries and left a lot of people unable to afford books on their own.
So, that was something of a twist. I somehow had no idea that Amazon was a publishing house in addition to a distributor.
Many Americans now recognize that a few tech companies increasingly dominate our lives. But it’s sometimes hard to put your finger on exactly why that’s a problem. The case of the vanishing e-books shows how tech monopolies hurt us not just as consumers, but as citizens.
So, again, Amazon’s controlling of how Mindy Kaling’s book is distributed is hardly a threat to the intellectual life of the Republic, much less the common weal. But quantity has a quality of its own.
You probably think of Amazon as the largest online bookstore. Amazon helped make e-books popular with the Kindle, now the dominant e-reader. Less well known is that since 2009, Amazon has published books and audiobooks under its own brands including Lake Union, Thomas & Mercer and Audible. Amazon is a beast with many tentacles: It’s got the store, the reading devices and, increasingly, the words that go on them.
Librarians have been no match for the beast. When authors sign up with a publisher, it decides how to distribute their work. With other big publishers, selling e-books and audiobooks to libraries is part of the mix — that’s why you’re able to digitally check out bestsellers like Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.” Amazon is the only big publisher that flat-out blocks library digital collections. Search your local library’s website, and you won’t find recent e-books by Amazon authors Kaling, Dean Koontz or Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Nor will you find downloadable audiobooks for Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and Michael Pollan’s “Caffeine.”
So, again, it would be really fucking helpful if Fowler would point to a single book that matters. I’m a fan of Trevor Noah but it’s hardly a crying shame if poor people can’t download the e-Book version of his latest musings. Surely, there are better examples from the “more than 10,000 e-books or tens of thousands of audiobooks” Amazon is bogarting?
Amazon does generally sell libraries physical books and audiobook CDs — though even print versions of Kaling’s latest aren’t available to libraries because Amazon made it an online exclusive.
It’s hard to measure the hole Amazon is leaving in American libraries. Among e-books, Amazon published very few New York Times bestsellers in 2020; its Audible division produces audiobooks for more big authors and shows up on bestseller lists more frequently. You can get a sense of Amazon’s influence among its own customers from the Kindle bestseller list: In 2020, six of Amazon’s top 10 e-books were published by Amazon. And it’s not just about bestsellers: Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, the self-publishing business that’s open to anyone, produces many books about local history, personalities and communities that libraries have historically sought out.
While that’s niche content that the average poor citizen or child is decidedly unlikely to check out, that at least gets us near something interesting: content that would otherwise be valuable that simply isn’t available because of oligopoloy power.
In testimony to Congress, the American Library Association called digital sales bans like Amazon’s “the worst obstacle for libraries” moving into the 21st century. Lawmakers in New York and Rhode Island have proposed bills that would require Amazon (and everybody else) to sell e-books to libraries with reasonable terms. On March 10, the Maryland General Assembly unanimously approved its own library e-book bill, which now heads back to the state Senate.
Given that this is where my mind had already gone independently, I’m amenable to the idea. Essentially, we’d do with e-books and audio-books what has happened (albeit, I believe, organically?) with the music business and ASCAP and BMI. There, though, there’s a more obvious equity interest. It’s not fully obvious to me why Amazon shouldn’t be allowed to decide which of its content be made available for free sharing. (There’s a much more obvious case, though, for regulating Amazon’s horizontal integration—although I’m not sure who would finance e-books and audiobooks for non-bestsellers.)
Amazon declined my request for an interview. “It’s not clear to us that current digital library lending models fairly balance the interests of authors and library patrons,” said Mikyla Bruder, the publisher at Amazon Publishing, in an emailed statement. “We see this as an opportunity to invent a new approach to help expand readership and serve library patrons, while at the same time safeguarding author interests, including income and royalties.”
Amazon announced in December it is in negotiations to sell e-books to a small nonprofit called the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which makes tech for other libraries. But those negotiations don’t include Audible audiobooks and Amazon’s trove of self-published books. And even if that deal happened, it still wouldn’t help most American libraries, which buy and distribute e-books through the maker of the Libby app — a company called OverDrive.
OverDrive chief executive Steve Potash told me he’s had “ongoing dialogue” with Amazon Publishing. “As part of our dialogue, we communicated our willingness to innovate in an effort to support their business strategy,” he said. Amazon said it was in touch with OverDrive but not discussing operational details like with the DPLA.
This particular complaint is sufficiently arcane that I don’t know that I have an opinion. I’m not sure why it’s Amazon’s problem that OverDrive doesn’t deal with DPLA. Or why I should care that Amazon’s vanity press content isn’t available to libraries.
It’s one thing to haggle over business — but another for Amazon to have the power to unilaterally force libraries to stay in the 20th century. It’s a price we pay for letting Big Tech get so big.
Again, I really, really want to be sympathetic to this argument. As much as I like Amazon as a company—it has made my life simpler in a variety of ways—I think trust-busting is a vital government function. There are surely ways that Amazon is squeezing publishers and therefore authors in a way that’s bad for society. But it’s not obvious how this particular practice is hurting us in a meaningful way.
Finally, long after most readers would have given up, we get to it:
Since the 1980s, lawmakers have focused on one main way to measure the harm caused by monopolies: Are prices going up for consumers? That’s been a gift to Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. In many cases, they can argue their massive scale has made prices go down or even made things free.
But we’re not just price-sensitive consumers — we’re also citizens. We need products that are made fairly, serve our needs and are equitably distributed. Groundbreaking government antitrust lawsuits filed in late 2020 argue Google’s monopoly hurts us because it’s blocking competitors and prioritizing its own inferior services. In my own investigation, I found Google search results are getting worse as it puts its own business ahead of our interests.
Libraries losing e-books matters because they serve us as citizens. It’s easy to take for granted, but libraries are among America’s great equalizers. Benjamin Franklin helped found one of America’s first because he realized few individuals could afford a large enough collection to be well-informed.
Granting that I’m relatively affluent, Amazon has actually had the opposite effect for me: they’ve made books, particularly used books, so cheap that I tend to buy any book that I want to read so that it’s part of my personal collection and I’m free to annotate it as I please.
Today, the public service of libraries includes digital collections. They’re a hit in urban and rural areas alike: As of 2018, about 90 percent of American libraries offered online loans. The covid-19 pandemic made digital collections only more critical — several libraries told me e-book and audiobook checkouts surged by 40 percent or more in 2020.
You can check out an e-book or audiobook by going to your library’s website and entering your library card number. Once you find a book that’s available, you can download and read it on a dedicated device such as the Kindle, through the Web, or on a smartphone or tablet with an all-in-one app like Libby. When your loan is over, the digital copy disappears.
“Imagine if you were put out of work by covid, and you want to read a book about developing your skills. You don’t have the economic wherewithal to get that book yourself — but you log into the Libby app and can’t find it,” says Michael Blackwell, director of the rural St. Mary’s County Library in Leonardtown, Md.
The Internet has, of course, given us access to a lot more information — but also made it possible to erect new walls around some of it.
Well . . . sure. But people have a right to make a living off of their work. And most of these works wouldn’t even exist without Amazon. Dean Koontz and company would have other publishers but the self-published content exists solely because Amazon makes it phenomenally easy to be a “published author.”
“Society pays a huge price,” says Michelle Jeske, city librarian at the Denver Public Library and president of the Public Library Association. “How many different platforms does a person have to subscribe to to be able to read all the things they’re interested in? You used to be able to just do that at the public library.”
Amazon treating digital collections differently than print is a “particularly pernicious new form of the digital divide,” the American Library Association told Congress.
Another problem: Libraries can’t archive for posterity what they don’t have access to.
Tech rights group Fight for the Future made an interactive guide called Who Can Get Your Book that explains the ways libraries are being left out.
Here, I’m more sympathetic. But this is an increasing issue for all of us, right? Content of all forms has become incredibly diffuse and there’s only so much of it I’m willing to subscribe to access. It’s not like libraries have unlimited budgets. Hell, not even the Library of Congress can possibly archive everything.
Nobody is arguing libraries should get freebies from publishers and authors. In fact, libraries usually pay more than we do for e-books — between $40 and $60 per title and as much as $100 for a popular audiobook. And unlike print books, which libraries can loan out to one person at a time again and again, e-books often come with digital locks that make them expire after a certain number of loans or a set period of time.
These terms have caused tension between libraries and publishers. Many librarians worry the price and terms that come with e-books aren’t sustainable, but most agree providing access is their overriding concern. Some publishers, meanwhile, say easy access to library e-books — just a few taps in the Libby app — hurts their sales. Libraries counter that they’re a net positive, not only because libraries buy so many books themselves, but also because they’re an effective way to market products to customers who also buy books and audiobooks.
I’m more sympathetic to the equity argument than the notion that “libraries” have a more nuanced understanding than Amazon as to how best to maximize profits on their copyrighted materials.
Again, this is the strongest argument:
“The key is that Amazon is the umpire and the player at the same time,” said Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, a think tank that’s critical of Big Tech monopoly power.
We should naturally be alarmed at this much concentration of power. I just wish we could point to something other than access to marginally-important books as proof.