Two Posts Call Out Amazon and Macmillan

Andrew Albanese at Publishers Weekly has reported on Bibliotheca’s Tom Mercer’s open letter to librarians. Mr. Mercer writes that Amazon is using data it collects from library e-book and audio use (through its arrangement with OverDrive) to suggest libraries are costing publishers revenues: “As long as data is shared with Amazon by library users, Amazon will spin that data to create concern, and publishers will be forced to alter their digital library lending models or risk losing key authors.“

Mercer argues that libraries should pressure vendors (okay, yes, it is really “vendor” and not “vendors”) to drop data sharing with Amazon: “I think libraries can respond in a few ways. First, they can pressure their existing vendors to terminate relationships or refuse to share data with Amazon. If Amazon won’t sell their content to libraries, then why should libraries share their data with Amazon? Second, they can appeal to ALA to engage authors the same way they engage publishers and demonstrate how digital lending contributes to the discovery and accessibility of their works. The book ecosystem starts with authors and we need to ensure that they understand the value libraries provide. It is also advisable to consider joining the efforts of the Association of American Publishers, who are currently pressuring the Federal Trade Commission to monitor Amazon. “

Albanese explores the ramifications of Mercer’s statement comprehensively and his article is well worth a read. Your RF correspondent is cited in the article: “Short answer, no, I wouldn’t want OverDrive to give up their Amazon connection—even though I think Tom Mercer’s views have enough merit that I might wish OverDrive would.” Yes. While I don’t think OverDrive dropping Amazon is the best way to start, I do think Mercer makes many good points. So here’s a longer answer:

I don’t like Amazon in our sandbox. We tout SimplyE as being a more private option for library users because Amazon never sees any data—but we then have OverDrive libraries hesitate to deploy because Amazon users are left out. I’m not sure a figure of 23-24% Kindle use in OD is completely accurate because I don’t think OD is separating out true Kindle use (on e-ink Kindles) from tablet and phone use with the Amazon app. Amazon users know this way of getting content, so they continue to use it even though there are more private (and I would argue better) options on their devices. I‘d love to convert library users away from Amazon, and I’d also love to win the lottery and spend my life traveling. Most likely ain’t gonna happen. It is more likely that many Kindle users would drop the library if that format is taken away. People come into libraries with e-ink Kindles and want to know how to get content.

What I’d like to see (scenarios get more likely to happen the farther down we go):

• Libraries nationally adopt SimplyE, wean library users away from Amazon, and foreground the library as content provider—we should seek EPUB 3 as the gold standard for libraries and fight against all proprietary formats. How does that jive with my statement that we should not lose Kindle format? Oh, you expect consistency? Hey, I’ve said this scenario is unlikely, and practicality is the reason why with OD may not want to lose Kindle format. But Mercer is right—there are good reasons to do so. We should make our case, especially since many users will have access to a tablet or phone, be familiar with apps, and likely not stuck on Kindle e-ink. But let’s make the case directly with readers, and not through vendors.

• All library e-book vendors can provide Kindle/MOBI format titles and users get them directly from the library vendors without having to go to Amazon—level the playing field and increase privacy

• All library e-book vendors can offer Amazon format titles and we send Kindle users to Amazon—at least it’s a level playing field, and we offer some people content in a format they are familiar with; also, Amazon makes a deal to have its “exclusive” content available in libraries. It’s not like Bezos can’t afford it.

Of course, none of these will happen (though the first option IS something we could and should do), so:

• Hold our noses and live with OverDrive’s monopoly, but engage library readers and ultimately publishers on how libraries help authors, pointing out that Amazon is also part of their problem in a complex ecosystem and making a positive case for how libraries are good for readers and reading and so good for authors and publishers.

While I’m sympathetic to some of Tom’s points, but some seem myopic. “Second, they can appeal to ALA to engage authors the same way they engage publishers and demonstrate how digital lending contributes to the discovery and accessibility of their works. The book ecosystem starts with authors and we need to ensure that they understand the value libraries provide.” Who are the authors going to believe, the ALA or their publishers? Look at the recent Author’s Guild statement supporting Macmillan’s restrictive changes. And of course, we probably don’t need the case to new or non-best-selling authors that libraries are good for them. Authors with blockbusters sales may simply not care about libraries. They probably all love bookstores more than libraries anyway. Let’s take our fight to READERS.

Thanks, though, Tom, for stating points that need to be considered and at least calling out Amazon for bogus claims.

Speaking of Macmillan, another article that is worth reading has appeared in Computers in Libraries: “Publishers Are on a Collision Course With Libraries,” by Terry Ballard. Ballard reports that Macmillan CEO John Sargent . At Book Buzz, Ballard reports, Sargent said “Macmillan worked with libraries of all sizes for a year to solve the problem of libraries being so generous that they are killing sales for publishers and authors. The cooperating libraries seemed fine with the policy, so Macmillan executives were surprised at the ferocity with which it was greeted by public libraries in general.”

Ballard comments “Sargent was ignoring a basic fact of human psychology. The librarians who participated in Macmillan’s focus group were invested in the outcome….. The ones who found out from seeing his terse letter were understandably unhappy to read that libraries are being perceived as the enemy of publishing and that they are being forced to serve up healthy portions of frustration to their patrons.”

Ballard adds “For a policy that Macmillan claims is perfectly reasonable, it hasn’t exactly put it in lights.” Mr. Ballard, I’m surprised you heard him say anything. This is more public comment than anyone in the library world has gotten.

Ballard concludes “With mergers and acquisitions rampant, there are very few publishers left in the business. If four other major players decide this [restricting library access] is the answer they’ve been seeking, the results will make public libraries extremely unhappy. . . . I know that librarians are driven to get good information into the hands of their patrons as quickly and easily as possible. This usually was not seen as a bad thing.”

No doubt we will have to have many negotiations in a complex ecosystem to get to a better place than we are now, but, no, sharing information in a democratic society is not a bad thing. Do readers have to have credit cards to have access? Thanks, Mr. Ballard, for supporting libraries!