What Will Amazon’s ‘Netflix for Books’ Do to Libraries?

Gabe Habash -- September 12th, 2011

Amazon is at it again–this time looking to open a lending library for digital books (also covered here). The details: Amazon is supposedly discussing with publishers a way to get books on the e-tailer’s digital platform so users could read an unlimited number for a subscription fee. The digital library reportedly would be part of Amazon’s growing Prime services, which put unlimited streaming video under its umbrella earlier this year, in addition to giving subscribers free two-day shipping for $79/year. Amazon’s digital books library, which would basically operate like a “Netflix for Books” (as a side note, it seems relevant to point out that Netflix has had problems since Amazon’s Prime Streaming Video feature was added), would, like every announcement Amazon makes, momentously affect others. This time, those “others” are libraries.

Libraries have shared much of publishing’s uncertainty as physical books continue their slide. In Buffalo, Help Campaigns are being waged as libraries are finding less money for the purchase of materials. In Detroit, librarians and library employees are being laid off and hours of operation cut back to offset free-falling property taxes, which finance the libraries. In the UK, the Halifax Courier reports that residents are being asked to choose from six cost-cutting options in order to scale back the libraries’ budget by £150,000.

In addition to embracing digital books, libraries are trying everything under the sun in order to save themselves. In Baltimore, the December opening of the Howard County library will feature a computer classroom and historical center, as well as a garden “charming enough for weddings.” Other libraries are opening coffee shops and encouraging social interaction, basically trying to bring back the big box bookstore trend that made Barnes & Noble and Borders successful.

But can local branches, many already running dry, survive if Amazon gives Prime, which is becoming more and more of a deal at $79 as it decorates its price tag with feature after feature, and its users the capability to access any book a library could provide, without having to leave one’s home? Publishers, reportedly worried that Amazon’s digital library will devalue books in the eyes of consumers, obviously have the rights to the books and can put the brakes on the plan. But once one publisher signs, and assuming it finds success, expect a flood of others to follow. And really, it’s hard to imagine a feature that puts books right in front of your nose and charges you no additional cost not taking off.

Interestingly enough, Amazon’s digital library for a subscription fee idea is basically what Google was looking to achieve before it was condemned to litigation limbo. Google, in scanning thousands and thousands of books, was looking to present to subscribers a vast well of literature and research materials. And what makes this whole story even more interesting is that their first clients were to be institutions–like libraries.

Though Amazon’s digital library is still in its very early stages, and though it’s yet to be seen if the idea hits roadblock getting publishers to cooperate, it’s time to speculate about the future of libraries. In 10 years, what will be the closest thing to a library? Will the image the word evokes change from the one we all once had–a person sitting quietly rapt at a table, poring over a book (either for research or pleasure) while surrounded by shelves and shelves of more books–to an image of a person, never leaving his or her house, pressing a series of buttons on a high-res Amazon tablet screen to check out a lent book, scanning the lines using the device’s backlight instead of the low ceiling lights of a library?

13 thoughts on “What Will Amazon’s ‘Netflix for Books’ Do to Libraries?

  1. Gabi Sandoval

    I love my library, and I am lucky becuse I live in the city and can order from
    a lot of branchs and If one library doesn’t have what I want the other one will
    I can’t think of any thing greater at the end of a long day then to curl up with
    a book to looking at the cover feeling the pages, I know people who
    have kindles and the only thing I hear is that they are good while waiting
    for a bus, waiting for a doctor, something to pass the time. People that love
    to read get into the book and a book becames a part of who they are.
    The library is the greatest thing ever developed I don’t even want to think
    of libraries being desolved-What about people that can’t afford kindles and what ever else there coming up with that they charge for. There are alot of important
    people rich and poor that with out libraries wouldn’t have been able to accomplish
    what they have, Whats next are we going to distroy in this country the Library
    of Congress!

  2. Laura Jennings

    I find the alarmist nature of all this is disappointing. I always like to remind people that the Ancient Greeks freaked out about the written word, afraid it would destroy oration. The library I go to in a town with a population of about 40k is so busy so much I often have to wait for a parking space. Just as photography did not destroy art, but pushed it in new and interesting directions, the same will be true for digital publishing and ebooks. Obviously some kinks will be worked out, but no one is suddenly going to start ignoring copyright. Amazon being a multi-billion dollar corporation ought to be able to offer some nice pieces of pie to publishers. Amazon already has a magnificent ebook publishing service; I think microstransactions will work out best.

  3. Don

    Interesting observations, but keep in mind that many libraries are already offering eBooks and other resources like online databases free of charge to library card holders. Our local libraries are busier than ever as visitors come to check out printed or audio books, CDs or DVDs, use computers free of charge, and attend programs like children’s storytimes, technology classes and cultural arts nights. Unlike Amazon.com, libraries can be both community gathering places and valuable *free* resources readily accessible from home.

  4. Theresa M. Moore

    In most cases, plans like these leave authors and publishers out of the planning equation, undercut book sales and basically remove the word “voluntary” out of the discussion. Too often we have seen plans like these fail to deliver an “opt in” to the process. While I see nothing wrong with providing books to libraries, big companies like Amazon NEVER ask permission. They just do it without notification to the copyright owners or asking for permission. Witness Google’s original plan part 2. Once again, an effort to make money without compensation to the creators of the content. Obviously the effort to keep Google from scanning everything without the proper process of copyright has now infected Amazon. Watch the retailer lose its vast catalog as authors and publishers flee elsewhere to avoid losing just compensation. Barnes & Noble has never engaged in such wholesale piracy.

  5. Karen Ronald

    I am amazed that people don’t recognize the fact that libraries are busier than ever. People come to and use libraries because they are staffed by professionals they trust – namely librarians who sort through all the books and sources made available and select the very best for their communities. They also teach people how to select items and do research effectively and continously watch and adopt emerging technologies for their communities. When library budgets are cut so is the heart and cultural richness of communities – all of which sustain people through thick and thin.

  6. Nick

    It seems that you are assuming that libraries are dead already. Frankly, if Amazon can negotiate some sort of deal like that it gives me hope that libraries would have a better chance than they currently do of getting a similar deal for their “subscribers.”

    I’m also not sure how you translate “opening coffee shops and encouraging social interaction” into “trying to bring back the big box bookstore trend.” The big boxes offered those things as a way to lure people in to buy things. Libraries are offering those things as a way to encourage people to use their spaces for study, relaxation, meetings, and all sorts of other productive interactions in an environment where they can receive help and guidance in finding the information they need. It’s creating an entirely new model of service, not trying to recapture a failed business model.

    1. Alana Joli Abbott

      Have you seen the OverDrive system for e-book lending? My local library (and many others) use it with Adobe Digital Editions to lend out e-books for a month at a time. I *love* the service and have used it frequently! So, in my opinion, the libraries were well ahead of amazon with this.

  7. Teresa Raines

    Many children DO use the library, and it’s not because they are underpriviledged, they are learning. The busiest day at my PL is Sunday, and the busiest department is Children’s because many kids love to read and will devour books. So borrowing is the best way to get books into young hands. I’m a librarian and I borrow books all the time because I love to read… so generalizations about families and incomes is pointless. Libraries DO NOT mostly serve the poor. Libraries serve the community!

    1. Alana Joli Abbott

      Libraries also offer a ton of programming — we heavily utilize the children’s programming at my local library, because storytime with Mom might be fun, but storytime with Miss Mary is way *more* fun, in part because it’s being shared with other kids and parents. The library stopped being just a repository for books a long time ago — at least here in Shoreline Connecticut — and it’s now also a community resource for gatherings, meetings, job hunting, puppet shows, galas, art shows, and lectures. And that’s just the tip of the ice berg.

      As book lending becomes easier digitally, will libraries have to change some of their approach? Sure. But many of them have been changing that approach for years and are successfully riding the new trends.

  8. Kitti

    Libraries mostly serve the poor. The library in my city is full of underpriviledged children and their mothers, using the computers and checking out books for school papers.
    I am certain that these kids’ children will _not_ be underpriviledged, as a result of these library experiences.

  9. Virginia

    I love my local library but the selection leaves a huge amount to be desired, especially when it comes to new releases. I wouldn’t stop going to the physical library but I would love to have an e-book library option, especially before I travel or for books that I can’t get at my branch.

  10. Joelle Delbourgo

    One big difference between movie-goers and readers is that watching a movie has been until recently a communal experience, whereas reading is one-on-one.
    This may not be the most terrible idea, but writers must be adequately compensated and should have approval of what books their books are being paired with.

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