Amazon under pressure to lift ban on e-book library sales

Amazon under pressure to lift ban on e-book library sales
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Amazon’s refusal to sell e-books published in-house to libraries is sparking backlash as demand for digital content spikes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Librarians and advocacy groups are pushing for the tech giant to license its published e-books to libraries for distribution, arguing the company’s self-imposed ban significantly decreases public access to information.

“You shouldn’t have to have a credit card in order to be an informed citizen,” Michael Blackwell, director of St. Mary’s County Library in Maryland, told The Hill. “It’s vital that books continue to be a source of information and that those books should be democratically discovered through libraries.”

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A petition launched last week by Fight for the Future, a tech advocacy group, calls for Congress to pursue an antitrust investigation and legislative action against Amazon for its ban on selling e-books to libraries. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had nearly 13,000 signatures.

“Ultimately if you can’t find [an e-book] at a library, where are you going to buy it? Kindle,” said Lia Holland, an activist with Fight for the Future, referring to Amazon’s online e-book store.

Amazon has indicated it is in discussions to allow its e-books to be licensed by libraries, but so far the public institutions are unable to access Amazon’s digital titles.

Issues surrounding library e-books go beyond Amazon. Traditional publishers have become increasingly restrictive regarding e-books, Blackwell said, but they at least offer options for libraries to license and distribute those books.

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 top publishing firms typically have two-year licensing contacts for library e-books, with options to extend for another two years, said Alan S. Inouye, senior director of public policy and government relations at the American Library Association.

But unlike their traditional publishing peers, 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.”

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As Amazon ramps up publishing, critics are concerned that even more books will be unavailable to libraries.

“It’s become significant, and of course everyone understands that Amazon’s trajectory for growth is upward, so it’s also a concern about having access to even more titles in the future — or rather not having access to even more titles in the future,” Inouye said.

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.

Amazon declined to provide details regarding pricing or the lengths of licensing deals it plans to test in 2021.

Michele Kimpton, director of business development and senior strategist at the DPLA, said Amazon has been in discussions with the group since the summer about making their published e-books available.

If a deal is reached, the DPLA would be able to provide Amazon’s digital content for libraries across the nation to license through the DPLA’s content exchange platform, Kimpton said.

“I’m excited that DPLA was able to take this step forward with Amazon and hopefully provide this pathway so libraries can have access to Amazon books in ways that might not have been possible otherwise,” Kimpton said.

Blackwell said if an agreement is reached for Amazon to share its content through the DPLA, it could be “a wonderful and important development for library readers.”

But an agreement is far from set in stone, and librarians and advocacy groups are increasing a pressure campaign that stretches back to 2019.

The American Library Association last year submitted comments to the House Judiciary Committee as part of an antitrust investigation into tech companies. The group wrote that the “worst obstacle for libraries are market place bans,” such as Amazon’s, which denies libraries access to e-books from high-profile authors like Dean Koontz, Mindy Kaling and Mark Sullivan.

The library association underscored their comments by noting the rise in e-book popularity. Demand has only increased during the pandemic due to limited in-person services.

Blackwell said the St. Mary’s County Library saw a 40 percent jump in e-book requests in the last year. The Los Angeles Public Library, which serves one of the largest populations of any public library in the nation, also saw e-book circulation increase more than 40 percent during that period.

Between March 1 and Nov. 30 of last year, e-book circulation at the Los Angeles Public Library was about 2.7 million. During the same period this year, it was more than 3.9 million, according to figures shared with The Hill.

Catherine Royalty, the acting collection services manager for the Los Angeles Public Library, said the library frequently gets requests from patrons for e-content that Amazon does not make available to libraries.

“We have to explain to the users that the issue is with Amazon’s licensing policies and that the Library does not have a way to acquire their desired title and make it available,” Royalty said in a statement.

Amazon is not the first publishing company that libraries have sparred with over e-book licensing terms.

Last year, Macmillan announced a plan for an eight week embargo before libraries could purchase a new e-book release. Libraries announced a boycott, and Macmillan later said it would abandon the plan, stating “there are times in life when differences should be put aside.” The publisher said it would return to the library e-book pricing model that was in effect before November 2019.

While the top publishers’ terms are not always what librarians may deem fair, the option for distributing e-books is more than what Amazon is offering, Inouye said.

“We think the prices are too high, but at least that’s a market debate, or dispute, or question. It’s a very different thing when it’s, ‘Well, we’re not going to sell it to you at all,’ ” Inouye said.

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Two states have proposed legislation that would seek to regulate Amazon’s ban on selling e-books to libraries. State senators in Rhode Island and New York proposed bills this year that would require publishers to offer licenses for electronic books to libraries under reasonable terms.

A spokesperson for state Sen. Rachel May (D), sponsor of the New York bill, said the senator will pursue the legislation in the next legislative session.

“New York’s public libraries are one of the state’s greatest assets. In order to fulfill their democratic function, librarians must be able to access the materials their clients need on fair and equitable terms,” May said in a statement.

Blackwell said a legislative battle might create some significant challenges.

“It could be very unfavorable for libraries if it does. We don’t have the money, the resources, the pull in some ways that a corporate behemoth like Amazon does,” he said.

But he said he would rather see Amazon engage in a dialogue with librarians to try and come to an agreement.

“We hope that legislation doesn’t have to happen,” Blackwell said. “But if we cannot find some way for the people who often have the least advantages of society to access books through libraries, we may have to seek that as an alternative.”