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Taking Amazon Publishing to Task on Its Policy of No Sales to Libraries
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Posted On May 4, 2021
Amazon Publishing, which calls itself “a leading trade publisher of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books with a mission to empower outstanding storytellers and connect them with readers worldwide,” launched in 2009. It says that it publishes “emerging, bestselling and critically-acclaimed authors in digital, print, and audio formats.” Today, this publishing arm of the e-tailing giant is composed of 16 imprints, including AmazonEncore, Amazon Crossing, 47North, Montlake, Thomas & Mercer, and TOPPLE Books.

According to a 2019 article in Publishers Weekly, Amazon Publishing “typically publishes about 1,000 books per year, though that number can be higher in years when the company experiments in new areas. Amazon Publishing now has a backlist of more than 10,000 titles. …” The unit operates separately from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing arm, which has attracted major global clients due to its claim to publish any given work in “less than 5 minutes” and that the “book appears on Kindle stores worldwide within 24-48 hours.”

Through Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon has long supported library borrowing of Kindle books (published outside the Amazon network) in partnership with OverDrive. However, as its roster of authors and titles has grown over the years, Amazon Publishing has not shown the same willingness as other publishers in making its catalog available to libraries. And this is leading to backlash as demand for digital content continues to spike due to the coronavirus pandemic. At least three state legislatures have introduced bills that deal with access to digital content for libraries. Librarians and advocacy groups are pushing Amazon to allow licensing of its published ebooks (and audiobooks) to libraries for distribution, arguing that the company’s ban on library access is endangering the public’s access to information.

AMAZON BLOCKS LIBRARIES OUT OF SALES OF ITS IMPRINTS

As a December 2020 article in The Hill notes, “The crux of the issue is how e-books are sold. Whereas libraries can lend out physical copies of purchased books for as long as they hold up, libraries must adhere to licensing agreements that constrain how long they can keep e-books in circulation.” The big publishers typically offer 2-year contracts for licensing ebooks to libraries, but “Amazon does not allow libraries to purchase the e-books it publishes, leaving no option for libraries to access what Amazon says is ‘over 1 million digital titles’ that consumers ‘won’t find anywhere else.’” This policy by Amazon is making it difficult for libraries and their users to access the growing collections of new literary works—something that is antithetical to libraries’ mission.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post explained the ongoing dilemma to readers this way: “Librarians have been no match for the [Amazon] beast. When authors sign up with a publisher, it decides how to distribute their work. With other big publishers, selling ebooks 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 [Mindy] 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.’”

FIGHTING FOR THE FUTURE OF ACCESS

A petition launched in December 2020 by Fight for the Future, a tech advocacy group, is calling for congressional action—both an antitrust investigation and legislation that would prohibit Amazon or others from refusing to sell ebooks to libraries. Its website explains that “Amazon, one of the biggest booksellers and publishers, is refusing to let libraries lend any ebook it publishes, or any audiobook it creates. During the pandemic, checkouts of ebooks from libraries are up 52 percent. But, Amazon is undercutting libraries and access to knowledge for those most in need.”

The petition explains that “this behavior from Amazon isn’t surprising. They are the largest monopoly in the ecosystem of books, and their stranglehold gives them power to limit access not only to books and information, but to alter the perception of libraries in the industry. Because of Amazon’s outsized power and their maniacal collection of data to weaponize, the fights they pick are often fights they win.” More than 16,000 people have signed the petition as of May 2021.

Back in October 2019, ALA leaders submitted testimony to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary in which they noted that “unfair behavior by digital market actors—and the outdated public policies that have enabled them—is doing concrete harm to libraries as consumers in digital markets. Libraries are prepared to pay a fair price for fair services; in fact, over the past ten years, libraries have spent over $40 billion acquiring content. But abuse of the market position by dominant actors in digital markets is impeding essential library activities that are necessary to ensure that all Americans have access to information, both today and for posterity. If these abuses go unchecked, America’s competitiveness and our cultural heritage as a nation are at risk.”

DIGITAL PUBLIC LIBRARY OF AMERICA STEPS IN

In December 2020, the website Livewriters published an article indicating that “an Amazon spokesperson said the company is in ‘active discussions’ with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to make its e-books available for library distribution. The company expects ‘to be testing a number of different models’ early next year, the spokesperson added. ‘We believe libraries serve a critical purpose in communities across the country, and our priority is to make Amazon Publishing eBooks available in a way that ensures a viable model for authors, as well as library patrons,’ the spokesperson said.”

DPLA has taken a leading position in this. Michele Kimpton, its director of business development and senior strategist, explains the role that DPLA is taking in these negotiations: “As part of our work to expand access and grow the range of titles available to our partner libraries, we have been in discussions to make Amazon-published ebooks available to libraries and their patrons. We are excited about the possibility of enabling readers to access titles that previously have been available only for purchase.”

One suggested solution that DPLA is promoting for Amazon is to open up its lines of ebooks (and, potentially, audiobooks) through DPLA Exchange. “Any agreement we develop, with Amazon or anyone else,” Kimpton notes, “will, like our previous publisher agreements, be embedded in library values: access, equity, and patron privacy. Any titles made available to us will be made accessible in EPUB format through the DPLA Exchange and served to patrons via the SimplyE app. We are discussing an array of licensing models that would both be beneficial to authors and serve libraries.”

NewsBreaks contacted Amazon for comments. Maggie Sivon, head of publicity for Amazon Publishing, responded to our request by noting that “we don’t have anything additional to share at this time.”

ACTION NEEDED TO PROTECT READERS’ RIGHTS

In a February 2021 Publishers Weekly article, “Why 2021 Is Setting Up to Be a Pivotal Year for Digital Content in Libraries,” author Sari Feldman writes, “In 2021, libraries will almost certainly require more flexibility from publishers. The pandemic has had a serious impact on local budgets. And with many schools and public libraries remaining closed or offering only limited services, demand for digital resources will remain high.”

The problem, Feldman notes, is that last year, “tensions were flaring as many of the major publishers imposed new restrictions on library e-book lending—most prominently, Macmillan’s controversial embargo on new release e-books in libraries.” But the pandemic changed things, she writes. “Macmillan abruptly rescinded its embargo, a welcome move, and many more publishers moved to increase flexibility in licensing to help library budget dollars go further.”

She goes on to say, “The accommodations made by many publishers during the pandemic have helped, but the fundamental challenge for libraries in the e-book and digital content market remains: the library community and the major publishers still do not agree on what constitutes fair license terms for digital content. And because digital content must be licensed, libraries lack the kind of baseline rights to purchase and lend digital content that they enjoy with physical items under copyright law.”

ALA’S ALAN INOUYE RESPONDS

NewsBreaks contacted Alan Inouye, ALA’s senior director of public policy and government relations, for information on how ALA is approaching this critical issue. In a Q&A, he provides us with important updates and perspectives on these key access concerns.

Nancy Herther: With the current crisis and efforts to garner support for the Fight for the Future petition, the current number of signatories is just more than 16,000—which leads me to wonder how to reach even just the librarians who depend on this content to get them on board. How do you see the impact/role of the petition?

Alan Inouye: Petitions can be a useful tactic within the larger context of a communications and advocacy campaign that in turn operates as part of an overall policy strategy. In the past months, there has been a heightened visibility and interest in the challenges of library ebook lending and access to digital content broadly. We are on the cusp of a major milestone in Maryland with its bill on library ebook lending. I’d encourage librarians and others interested in this issue to help publicize it as you can—on blogs, social media, local newspaper op-eds, articles in newsletters and journals, and anywhere else to get the word out. Also, raise this issue within your state-level associations and other groups—maybe your state can be the next Maryland!

Herther: We have a Democratic president, but still a very divided Congress. Do you think there is hope for a legislative response? Past efforts to bring some of the key tech giants to congressional oversight sessions haven’t produced needed changes on other related access issues. What do you hope will happen with this in the future?

Inouye: I’m reasonably optimistic for progress. New laws for such an important sector as tech don’t happen overnight—and that’s actually a good thing. It shouldn’t be so easy to change national laws. I’m actually pleased that Congress has made as much progress on tech issues as it has in the past year. We had (and still have) the COVID-19 pandemic, a disputed presidential election, a rocky presidential transition, an insurrection, and extraordinary COVID relief and recovery bills. Congress has been busy on urgent matters and emergencies. I think there is a good chance we’ll see a bill on library ebook lending this year.

Herther: DPLA has been working to get Amazon to use its existing systems as a route for libraries to get needed access. However, it seems like this isn’t making needed progress. What additional channels of support do you see as necessary? Publisher groups? Author organizations? Individual high-profile authors?

Inouye: Well, I am a bit more hopeful on the Amazon-DPLA project. It will be a great start with respect to Amazon, but with emphasis on “start.” There will still be much to do even after its launch in terms of other distributors and to include all titles and formats. Also, the fundamental problem remains—all of the power resides with Amazon (and other companies). At will, they can change the terms or decide not to sell to libraries at all. Libraries, and the general public, have no rights.

Herther: What role do you see for ALA? What would you hope that librarians—united and as individuals—would do to move this critical issue forward?

Inouye: There are multiple avenues for ALA. We have been meeting with publishers for more than a decade. For much of 2020, that engagement lessened as ALA and libraries (and publishers) had to focus on the immediate effects of COVID. But we have resumed this engagement in the past months. ALA continues to be fully engaged on copyright and licensing in Congress, just as from our submission to the House Judiciary Committee in late 2019 and subsequently. And ALA supports state-level efforts, but also recognizes that state-level efforts must be led from within the state. I’d encourage librarians to speak out as I suggested earlier and work with and through the state library associations to increase visibility of this issue and to take action. Tell the library story of how we are beneficial to the publishing ecosystem—libraries are major customers; we provide free marketing to titles and authors; and we advance and cherish literacy. Also, check out the recent study “Immersive Media & Books 2020” from the Panorama Project, which is chock-full of interesting and useful data.

THE FUTURE

The issues underlying this dispute are fundamental to the very concept of the public library in a democracy. Authors themselves also need to step up and consider their role in this dilemma. At this time, there seems to be no assurance that it will be resolved soon—or in favor of free and open access to all.


Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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