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.
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.