Amazon, we want to talk to you about Kindle Unlimited

A hand holding up a Kindle

Amazon, if you’re reading this, we need to talk.

There’s been a flurry of blogging, largely from the USA, around the recent announcement of your new service, Kindle Unlimited (not yet available in the UK).  For $10 a year, Kindle users have unlimited access to 600 000 e-books and a couple of thousand e-audiobooks.

People have been asking "Why do we need libraries anymore?"

Some of the blogs have been looking at the possible impact on public libraries, with a couple taking the predictable line of “Hey! Why do we need expensive buildings any more, when we can give everybody a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, instead?”

Well, it’s an interesting question. I imagine you’re aiming to offer access to every book ever written. (It feels like you’re pretty close to doing that now.) It’s a librarian’s dream.  

We’d love to be able to offer unlimited access to books, to every resident, every child, every low-income family trying to improve their prospects, every retired stockbroker.  

It’s only one step removed from the hyper-libraries we love, which house vast collections, treasure troves, exciting depositories of unending richness. They are places where people discover who they are and where they’ve come from and how they relate to the world, and Amazon could be the same.

You won’t match the quality of a public library collection

People are saying that Kindle Unlimited could be a real problem for us.  I think it’s more of window of opportunity.  I’d like to talk to you.  I think you’re changing the game, and we’d like to look at moving with you.

First off, you’re not going to threaten us for a while. 600,000 books sounds exciting but the vast majority of them seem to be self published.  There will be some gold in there, many books worth reading, but they won’t match the quality of a public library collection.  People won’t be reading exclusively from Kindle Unlimited for a long while, because a lot of the books they want won’t be there.  So that gives us librarians some time to negotiate with you.

But we’ve got two meaty problems here in the UK...

We’ve got two meaty problems here in the UK, which US public libraries don’t suffer from quite so grievously.  

The first is that you can’t read library e-books on a Kindle.  Amazon doesn’t release sales figures, but Ofcom reports that nearly a quarter of all households own an internet–enabled e-reader.  It’s quite clear – from talking to our customers – that the vast majority of these are Kindles.   

In the US, the relationship between Amazon and Overdrive means that public libraries don’t see their customers going elsewhere.  Here in the UK we have no way of telling to what extent the national decline in book borrowing is linked to Kindle ownership, and I’ve lost count of the comments forms from customers who’ve bought a Kindle and then found they couldn’t use it with us:  “Why didn’t you tell me before I bought it?”

Our second problem is that 80% of bestseller ebooks are unavailable to UK public libraries.  In the US all of the Big Five publishers “sell” to library suppliers; here in the UK, three release a small number of titles.  We’re pinning our hopes to the “Sieghart” pilots in four library authorities, in which all five are participating and which are taking place as I write.

Perhaps we could talk about working in partnership with you?

Amazon, in light of our problems, perhaps we could talk about working in partnership with you?  

You might think your prices are too high for us, but we already subscribe to expensive online resources – encyclopaedias, newspapers, e-books – and make them available to library users.   

Maybe we should be looking at you as just one more library supplier.  It would be completely unfeasible for us to pay $10 or £7 for an Amazon Unlimited subscription for each of our residents, but the cost is actually not far off from what we’re currently paying for our e-resources per user.  (E-books are extremely expensive for public libraries, because we pay huge sums for the technology, the platform, the lending software, before we start buying the e-books themselves.)  

What’s in it for you, if you work with us?

What’s in it for you, if you work with us?  Well, we can bring you customers you would never attract otherwise:  people who don’t use the Internet, and people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford your services.  

One person in seven uses us regularly, Amazon, for a whole range of reasons, and we can reach people you can only dream of.  In other words:  we have market reach into areas you don’t, and not only can we bring you new customers, but we’ll pay you for the privilege.

And we’d be a community partner for you.  We’d make you look good.  People like us, because we make their lives better.  You need us, Amazon, because just recently the controversy over your reluctance to pay taxes in the UK has made you look heartless.  

We’d like to ask you to tread carefully, Amazon

We’d like to ask you to tread carefully, Amazon.  Building a relationship with you could cause other parts of the book trade to hate us.  Publishers in particular seem to have a love-hate relationship with you, and it’s my perception that if we were to go into partnership with you, our other suppliers would step back.  

There’s so many areas of controversy around control of the process  and pricing models – as I write, Hachette are waging a war of attrition with you, and author’s guilds are weighing in.  We still have painful memories of 2011 and the battle between Overdrive and Penguin over license terms, resulting from Overdrive’s relationship with you, which resulted in the withdrawal of all Penguin e-books from libraries.

Amazon, are you reading this?  We need to talk.

Could public libraries and Amazon work together?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below


Image source: "Kindle" by jblyberg, used under CC BY 2.0 / Original cropped and resized


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