In the wake of Amazon’s announcement of a new ebook subscription service, Forbes published an article by a British think tank employee with the link-bait title of “Close the Libraries and Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription”. As you might gather, the idea put forth was that supporting this licensing approach might be more cost effective for enabling the public’s access to content than the traditional public library in the United Kingdom. While that might not be the greatest idea, there is still much that scholarly publishers can learn from Amazon’s business strategy.

empty shelves
Could a Kindle Unlimited subscription replace your library’s stacks?

As a historical footnote, subscription based libraries were big in Britain during the 18th and 19th century when reasonably affluent individuals might pay for access to the latest three volume novel. (For some historical background on subscription based lending libraries, see here and here respectively). In the context of the Kindle Unlimited subscription, the reader pays Amazon $120 per year (or $119.88, if we’re being sticklers for accuracy) and gains access to as much as they want from a collection of about 600,000 titles. Critics have noted that these are not the high-end titles found in a first rate public or academic library; Amazon’s offering doesn’t include best-sellers, textbooks or scholarly monographs.

In particular, academic librarian Barbara Fister posted something of a rant at Inside Higher Education regarding the various reactions in the community to Amazon’s newly introduced program. Her point is that most libraries with reasonably good interlibrary-loan (ILL) departments will do far more for the serious reader than Kindle Unlimited. A posting by David Lankes of Syracuse University dryly suggested re-prioritizing concerns and a re-directing of community energies towards more pressing issues.

Personally, I was reminded of a similar media-created firestorm witnessed in early 2007. The Wall Street Journal picked up on a poorly conceived Washington Post article regarding the weeding of a collection by the wealthy public library system in Fairfax County, Virginia. Ostensibly, the Washington Post was alarmed over the idea that books by John Grisham were driving out books by John Steinback and Ernest Hemingway because library weeding policies were apt to favor high circulation titles rather than the recognized classics. Jeff J. Miller of the Wall Street Journal, in writing about the furor, referenced the questionable economic sense of libraries acting as “welfare programs for middle class readers who would rather borrow Nelson Demille’s newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Walmart”. To any information professional with an understanding of weeding practices, both the Washington Post article and the Wall Street Journal articles were evidence that neither the reporters nor the general public had bothered to take the time to truly understand how the practice of weeding promoted the cost-effective delivery of content to the public. (If you’re not clear on that particular point, Christina Pikas did a wonderful job of explaining the practice but it’s not clear how many readers processed that message.

The parallel I see for the audience of the Scholarly Kitchen in these snapshots of life in 2007 and life in 2014 is this: the communities being served do not necessarily understand the complexities of what it is publishing and information professionals do. The nuances of professional librarianship seem just as opaque to the profit-oriented Wall Street Journal and Forbes writers as the nuances of professional STM publishing appear to researchers who advocate for open access journals. Publishers and librarians can work to educate their clientele to some extent about what’s going on behind the curtain but there’s nothing to show the impact of those efforts.

Perhaps we might take a tip from Amazon’s playbook in its development of Kindle Unlimited. The service isn’t about replacing what libraries do. It is about Amazon’s need to compete with the Walmarts of this world in terms of distributing books (just as the quote from Jeff J. Miller’s 2007 Wall Street Journal piece might suggest.) The Forbes column was a mildly tongue-in-cheek reassurance to its readers that the private sector may frequently be better than the public sector at delivering a desired social good — in this instance, cost-effective access to content. The value inherent to Kindle Unlimited isn’t a change to actual content offerings, but rather repositioned the risk of the economic transaction in the mind of the subscriber. They did exactly what was done in scholarly publishing back in the ‘90’s with the introduction of the digital subscription model. Amazon didn’t add bells-and-whistles functionality to its Kindle ereaders or tablets. It gave the individual consumer the modern equivalent to this community’s Big Deal by tweaking one aspect of the business model. In their press release announcement of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon characterized itself as guided by 3 principles: “customer obsession rather than competitor focus, passion for invention, and long-term thinking”.

Which brings us to a more immediately relevant point for those reading the Scholarly Kitchen. One presenter I heard at the 2014 SSP Annual Meeting in Boston commented on a few tweaks that scholarly publishers might make in their business model. Amira Aaron, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources, Northeastern University noted that bells and whistles added to a publisher’s platform aren’t nearly as compelling in persuading a library to sign a contract as might be adjustments to licensing agreements that (perhaps unthinkingly) thwart the institutional mission. She named a few such clauses, and the recording of that Stakeholders track session is available in the SSP Library. Want to change the nature of the conversation you’re hearing in the marketplace? Want to be perceived as having an obsession with your customers? You might take a look at some of that boilerplate language.


Jill O'Neill

Jill O'Neill

Jill O'Neill is the Educational Programs Manager for NISO, the National Information Standards Organization. Over the past twenty-five years, she has held positions with commercial publishing firms Elsevier, ThomsonReuters and John Wiley & Sons followed by more than a decade of serving as Director of Planning & Communication for the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS). Outside of working hours, she manages one spouse and two book discussions groups for her local library.


32 Thoughts on "Libraries and Kindle Unlimited"

Good analysis. Although, on a personal level, I cannot detect any kind of value to any of Kindle’s customers. Paying money for something not even in their own possession and to be deleted by a pen troke, if Amazon so decides. tHat might be an interesting business modelf or Amazon, but beyond that, I really wonder …

I think Kindle Unlimited is aimed at the Kindle owner whose primary focus is on reading text rather than viewing films and/or playing games. There are still those readers who plow through genre fiction at a rate of a book per day. I’d guess that this service is aimed at that particular demographic.

Preselected “literature” for preselected technic-device-users … 🙂

I doubt the 600,000 titles counts as preselection, nor are Kindle users techies.

A library collection also consists of “preselected literature” — only (in the vast majority of cases), much less of it. (And don’t kid yourself about it being “free.”)

He objects to the lack of a royalty payment to the author (okay) and to the exclusive
restriction to the Amazon platform (okay). I think the likelihood of an author not
recommending another author’s work because it would mean his own share of the pot would
be reduced is lower than he suggests. As to his point about authors introducing the work
of other authors to a readership, I must confess that I depend more on friends for that
kind of thing than on other writers. Writing blurbs for each other is too much a part
of a currency between authors.

Meanwhile …

Amira Aaron, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources, Northeastern University noted that bells and whistles added to a publisher’s platform aren’t nearly as compelling in persuading a library to sign a contract as might be adjustments to licensing agreements that (perhaps unthinkingly) thwart the institutional mission. She named a few such clauses.

That sounds promising. If anyone who’s listened this has a moment to summarise what those clauses are for those of us who can’t take 90 minutes out to listen to the recording, I’d be obliged. It’s certainly true that most of the bells and whistles that are being offered have little appeal to the researchers I know.

According to my notes from the session, some of Amira’s concerns had to do with content exclusivity agreements between content and service providers, the mechanism for calculating FTEs in developing pricing for remote access to information resources and similar contract arrangements that could pose a barrier to fulfilling the institutional library’s mission. I hope, Mike, that you will find the time to listen to the recording as it was an excellent session.

The article raises a good point that libraries have far more to offer than Amazon Kindle Unlimited. But, as the article nicely qualifies, this is for the “serious reader”. Let’s be honest: For 80% of the population, the selection of books that Amazon Kindle Unlimited offers is all they would ever want or need. Essentially, libraries used to be a mass market service, and now they’re threatened to become a niche market product.

“For 80% of the population, the selection of books that Amazon Kindle Unlimited offers is all they would ever want or need.”

Maybe you’re right in that there’s 80% of the population that doesn’t read much. But when I compare my recent non-academic purchases–the kind of things I can find in the local Barnes & Noble–there’s a lot that isn’t offered under Kindle Unlimited. Nothing to Envy? No. Brandon Sanderson? No. The Dark is Rising? No. Jerktastic Park? No. Seven Days that Divide the World? No. The Story of the Jews? No. The Bombing War? No.

Let’s look at LibraryThing’s biggest authors: Sure, Kindle Unlimited has J. K. Rowling. What about Stephen King? Almost nothing. Terry Pratchett? Almost nothing. Tolkien? Yes. Lewis? Yes. Neil Gaiman? Almost nothing. Etc., etc.

Jill, as you point out Kindle Unlimited is analogous to the big deal, which has already greatly increased library offerings. It is not clear that there is anything equally big that publishers can do now, so there may be no big business model lesson in the KU move.

It is likely that if KU succeeds it will change library usage. This is just another Internet impact because Kindle is an Internet delivery device. Strategically that change may be what we need to focus on.

May I qualify your statement just a bit? “It is likely that if KU succeeds, it will change library usage” for specific populations within any given library community. To me the Internet impact for libraries is that the types of usage from different populations are more clearly underscored. What the research community needs from the academic library differs from the needs of the senior citizens who patronize the local public library. Rather than being a one-size-fits-all solution, libraries are having to more closely tailor their services to satisfy their patrons.

Indeed Jill, that is what I meant by strategic focus. If KU gets hot with a specific set or type of content (hence user population) then the libraries might want to shift resources to other sets or types. And you are certainly correct that the Internet also provides new visibility that makes this kind of strategic analysis possible. The Internet taketh away and the Internet giveth, as it were.

I’ll be happy to do a follow-up, but I’m not sure I know what you mean by insider allusions. Might you clarify?

In my small backwater, a K-5 school library outside Charlottesville, I plan to send home to parents some charts comparing Kindle Unlimited’s really lame “collection” versus what my library offers. It’s not at all that I’m anti-ebooks or anti-subscription models, but I want to give them more information – about publishing realities and about how few of the 600K titles are high-quality or of real interest for young readers.

It’s a question of making sure that we all know what’s in that “collection”, isn’t it? It’s great that you’re pro-actively bringing that aspect to the parents’ attention.

I could not help laughing out loud at the comment “reasonably good interlibrary loan ILL departments could offer more than Kindle Unlimited”. I don’t have a dog in this fight but almost all academic libraries serve their students and faculty and even here ILL is very very last resort. Public libraries which are more ILL friendly often lack the collection to support even the most basic requests. Kindle Unlimited may not be the best answer but it will beat out ILL for most users.

Like everything else in this world, Dan, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. My experience is that ILL has worked in the context of resource sharing when my library is gathering twelve copies of a single title in order to support my mystery discussion group. It’s less serviceable when I want to get my hands on a copy of a scholarly monograph held in the local college library where they don’t want to provide access to the unwashed masses one town over. And I suspect that we will find that Kindle Unlimited isn’t going to be that useful for anyone other than that reader I mentioned above who goes through a book a day without much thought.

I’m surprised Overdrive is not getting more as the obvious (and elegant) retort to Kindle Unlimited. Why pay $119.88 when you can read essentially the same books, in essentially the same reader, for $0 from your local library (without actually going to your local library). Agreed that neither Overdrive nor Kindle Unlimited is helpful for deeper dives or serious scholarship but for a pile of ebooks to take on summer vacation, seems like Overdrive is the clear winner hear for readers. And libraries. And possibly, though haven’t looked at the economics of it, publishers. At the very least it keeps the Leviathan that is Amazon at bay.

Because the average user is appalled/intimidated by what they need to go through at their local library in order to download a borrowed ebook to their Kindle. (Okay, that’s a sweeping generalization, but remember the watchwords of the day are speed and convenience. Amazon is pretty good at those aspects of customer satisfaction.)

That’s true, and it’s exactly what KU has over interlibrary loan: interlibrary loan is effective, but it is neither speedy nor convenient.

For what it’s worth, my experience is that librarians and publishers both tend to underestimate the importance of convenience to researchers. It may be because at least some librarians and publishers used to be researchers, and they’re projecting their own research experience of say 20 years ago onto today: an experience where each paper you obtained was a Big Deal that you’d sit and read.

Whereas my experience now is, for example, that when I was recently writing a set of 300-word pop-science-level essays on various dinosaur groups, I might look up half a dozen papers to check my facts, but only read the few relevant paragraphs of each. For that pattern of usage, which I’d suggest is now dominant, convenience is key: things have to be available now, like a web-page would be, not in a couple of weeks or even (say) half an hour.

I agree with you that many researchers are expressing a demand for speed and convenience, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of the publishers and librarians not listening or of them only remembering a long-past youth. The behavior you describe is a kind of grazing behavior; a quick glance at a screen to fact-check *would* be sufficient there and to be thwarted in that context would certainly be frustrating. Ideally, we’d find a way to tie this type of actual user behavior to a payment structure. But I think you’ll agree, Mike, that user behavior differs across age, discipline, task, etc. Finding a business model that accommodates all as well as amortizes cost across all of the imaginable behaviors equitably is what is baffling the community. I won’t participate in Kindle Unlimited because it doesn’t satisfy my needs as a reader, but I can’t fault Amazon for trying to come up with a payment option that does satisfy a particular population’s needs.

I think you’ll agree, Mike, that user behavior differs across age, discipline, task, etc.

I do agree. But I think the clear trend (whether we approve or not) is in the direction of what you term browsing.

Perhaps the creation of Kindle Unlimited is the first step in separating the Kindle Lending Library from Amazon Prime?

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