I am pleased to announce that I will be working with Deanna Marcum and Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka S+R on a project to survey Amazon’s sales to academic libraries. This research is being funded with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This project has been a long time a-coming, and I am absolutely delighted to be involved with it.
Readers of the Kitchen know that Amazon and library sales have become an obsession of mine. Publishers, like anyone who invests in things and makes things, want to know who is buying their products, but when a publisher ships a print book off to a wholesaler or retailer, there is very little feedback from the distribution channel. With Amazon the situation is particularly bad, as Amazon sells books to anyone and everyone, but releases no information as to where those books ultimately go. Publishers are kept in the dark.
It was therefore of great interest when a few years ago a colleague mentioned that Amazon had become one of the largest library wholesalers. This caught me by surprise; like most people, I had assumed that Amazon mostly sold books to individuals. But a few phone calls to librarians confirmed my friend’s account. The questions sprung to mind: Why are librarians buying books from Amazon? What else do they buy from Amazon? How is this trending? What is Amazon’s market share for library sales? What does that amount to in dollars?
In the background were another set of questions concerning academic books and university presses in particular. Most university presses list Amazon as their biggest customer and decry the decline of their library sales (which they estimate by looking at their sales figures to such wholesalers as Baker & Taylor, YBP, and Ingram/Coutts), but what if some of the growth at Amazon is actually a shift from one library supplier to another? In other words, are libraries cutting back on university press titles or are they simply switching from traditional wholesalers to Amazon?
We hope to find out the answers to these questions. We are in the process of preparing a survey that will go out to the universe of academic libraries at four-year institutions. That’s only one segment of libraries, but it’s a good place to start–and also a natural one considering the kindred missions of university presses and academic libraries. These surveys will then be followed up with a series of telephone interviews, with the goal of getting behind the numbers to find out why librarians make the decisions that they do.
The aim of this research is to get a portrait of one aspect of Amazon’s participation in the academic community. We hope that the many librarians who will be receiving the survey participate, and we urge anyone with questions or comments to post them here on the Kitchen or to write us offline.
We will write up the results of this survey and make it openly available. We view this as the first step in shedding some light on the black hole that is Amazon.