Should Public Libraries Stop Supporting Amazon?

Should Public Libraries Stop Supporting Amazon?

How Do Public Libraries Support Amazon?

Public libraries support Amazon in various ways. Some buy books from Amazon when their regular distributors do not carry the books they need. Some buy their programming supplies from Amazon. Some encourage their patrons to shop at Amazon by advertising on their websites that patrons can shop on Amazon Smile and donate to the library. Some buy Amazon gift cards as prizes for raffles and reading challenges.

Supporting Amazon seems beneficial as Amazon has low prices, which means libraries can spread tax dollars farther. It also seems to make sense. Everyone already seems to have Amazon Prime, so why not ask them to donate the library when they shop? Why not give out gift cards patrons will want to use? But Amazon engages in unethical business practices, many of which harm the book industry as a whole. Libraries arguably should not be using tax payer dollars to support a business that pressures publishers into unfavorable terms and subjects to their employees to harmful working conditions. Public libraries can–and should–do better with the money with which they are entrusted.

Amazon Pressures Publishers into Unsustainable Business Deals

Many consumers, including public libraries, purchase from Amazon because of their low prices. However, it is well-known that Amazon sells books at a loss and makes up the difference by selling non-book items–meaning other book sellers, particularly indies, cannot compete with their prices

To offer such low prices, Amazon pressures publishers into unsustainable business deals. Because Amazon has a near-monopoly on the book market, publishers can hardly refuse. For example, The Seattle Times reported in 2012 that Amazon was asking McFarland & Co. to buy their books 45% off the cover price– a deal that would lose the publisher money.  Around that same time, the company offered Berkshire the deal of paying 40% off the cover price–then stopped ordering books when Berkshire refused the terms.  In 2015, The Washington Post wrote about the American Booksellers Association’s concern with Amazon selling books below cost.  Their concerns stemmed from the inability of smaller publishers to provide such deep discounts, an inability that could lead to fewer publishers able to stay in business.

Buying books from Amazon is desirable to customers because they want to pay less. However, in the long run, supporting Amazon instead of other sellers hurts the book industry as a whole because it gives Amazon unprecedented power to negotiate unfavorable deals with publishers, hurting their bottom line and thus making them less able to produce more books and less able to take risks on books that may not sell well.

Amazon Engages in Aggressive Behavior to Pressure Publishers to Agree to Their Terms

Amazon can lock publishers into unfavorable deals because they make such a large percentage of book sales. Consequently, publishers need to sell their books on Amazon in order for consumers to discover their products. When publishers do not agree to Amazon’s terms, Amazon might pressure publishers into acquiescence. For example, in 2010, Amazon removed the “buy” buttons from Macmillan titles when the publisher wanted higher prices listed for their books.  In 2012, Amazon removed IPG titles from the Kindle store because the publisher did not agree to their terms.  And in 2014, Amazon refused to offer discounts on preorders for Hachette titles as the two companies argued over e-book prices.

Removing books from the Amazon website is a powerful weapon because so many consumers use Amazon to shop. In 2018, Amazon had 199 million unique monthly visitors and 100 million Prime subscribers; they were estimated to have made 7.7% of retail sales. In the book market, 42% of book sales and 89% of e-book sales were attributed to Amazon. If Amazon refuses to sell a publisher’s books, a publisher will struggle to sell as many books.

Amazon Sales May Not Benefit the Publisher or the Author at All

In 2017, Vox reported that Amazon changed their “buy” button so that consumers might be purchasing from third parties, rather than from Amazon itself. Amazon buys the books directly from the publisher, and owes a percentage of the sale to the publisher (and thus the author) as a result. However, when a third party sells on Amazon, Amazon gets a percentage and the seller gets a percentage–the publisher and the author do not get paid at all.

The new system relies on an algorithm that prioritizes sellers with low prices. Sometimes Amazon wins the algorithm, but sometimes a third party does instead. Consumers who simply press “buy” might not realize they are not supporting an author with their money, but rather a third party who is selling books from sources even the publishers cannot figure out.

Amazon Faces Accusations of Unfair Treatment of Employees

Accusations abound that Amazon employees are treated horribly, with warehouse workers asked to handle 400 items per hour, or one every seven seconds, and given only 18 minutes of “time off task” per shift, meaning that employees have resorted to urinating in bottles or trash cans to avoid being penalized for being “off task.” Some employees have alleged that they were advised to finish working before seeking necessary medical care. Drivers report being pressured to drive at dangerous speeds, to skip meals, and to avoid bathroom breaks in order to deliver on them. In all the news stories linked, Amazon denies the truth of the reports and insists the company treats their employees well. But still Amazon workers in Europe went on strike last year on Black Friday, demanding safer working conditions.

Amazon Produces Exclusive Content Libraries Are Not Allowed to Buy

In 2018, Audible (owned by Amazon) announced that they were acquiring exclusive content from big-name authors like Margaret Atwood and Michael Lewis.  Currently, libraries are unable to purchase and share original Audible content, meaning that readers who wish to listen to it have to pay a subscription. Refusing to sell to libraries prevent libraries from fulfilling their mission of providing equal access to content and knowledge. It seems odd that libraries would financially support a company that does not wish to support libraries in return.

Conclusion

Libraries are entrusted with taxpayer dollars in order to serve the community. But who is benefiting when libraries buy from Amazon? Mostly Amazon. Supporting Amazon financially and giving the company control over the bookselling market could have a negative impact long-term, causing publishers to earn less money, leading them in turn to publish fewer books and to take fewer risks on books that do not seem like bestseller material. This means authors could earn less money and readers could have less choice.

Furthermore, despite Amazon’s protests, complaints about the way they mistreat employees continue to proliferate. Employees explain that giving everyone free one- or two-day shipping comes at a human cost: injury, fatigue, and burnout. If public libraries are to support their community, they should support businesses who treat their employees well.

Finally, Amazon seems to have little regard for the mission of libraries, to provide equal access to all. Instead, they are producing exclusive content they do not allow libraries to purchase, thereby creating social inequity. Libraries should spend their money on retailers who in turn support libraries.

What Can Libraries Do?

  • Purchase books and materials from other retailers. In many cases, Amazon’s prices seem comparable with Barnes and Noble’s online prices. Or libraries could look into buying from indies or directly from publishers.
  • Support local businesses with their money. Many local businesses have their own gift cards that can be used as prizes or reading incentives, instead of Amazon gift cards.
  • Partner with local indies. Consumers love Amazon because they love the low prices. But indies can give consumers other value–for example, by hosting author visits with libraries. Patrons get to meet authors and have their books signed. Indies get to sell their books.

What Can Library Patrons Do?

  • Find out if your local library buys from Amazon. Write to the director asking that the library support a more ethical business. Explain why you are asking for this change; the director may not be aware of Amazon’s business practices.
  • Attend a library board meeting and ask for the library to end or limit Amazon purchases. All members of the community are stakeholders in the library and the public is allowed to attend library board meetings and comment. Meetings should be announced on the library website.

Thoughts on Macmillan’s AMA Regarding Their E-Book Embargo

Thoughts on the Macmillan AMA

On January 25, 2020, Macmillan CEO John Sargent hosted an AMA at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia to address concerns about the e-book embargo imposed by the publisher last November.  The embargo stipulates that libraries can only purchase one license for a new e-book title upon its release.  They must wait eight weeks to purchase additional copies. Sargent’s hope is that frustrated library patrons who cannot check out a book in a reasonable amount of time will purchase it instead, driving up Macmillan’s revenue.  Libraries have protested strongly to the embargo, some of them even imposing boycotts upon Macmilan e-book titles (though they continue to purchase print versions of the titles, which are generally cheaper than e-book licenses and can be kept until weeded–unlike e-books which expire after a certain number of check outs or after a certain number of months, and must then be repurchased).

Publishers Weekly‘s coverage of the AMA indicates that Macmillan has no intentions to lift the embargo anytime soon.  Sargent stated that more time must pass before the publisher knows whether the embargo has been financially successful.  He also explained that librarians will never get the data they have been clamoring for, since that is private business information, some of it held under nondisclosure agreements.  None of this is surprising.

What is surprising is Sargent’s continued ignorance of how libraries work and why they are important to a democratic society.  This might have been excusable when Macmillan announced the embargo–a CEO probably has no need to use a public library and so is unlikely to understand what libraries do or how they support communities.  Months of meetings with frustrated librarians, however, surely should have inspired Sargent to research the work of libraries more closely. Instead, he explained to librarians during the meeting how libraries work and how that hurts Macmillan’s bottom line–even though his understanding of libraries is at best exaggerated and at worst totally incorrect.

The Publishers Weekly coverage states that Sargent blamed increasing accessibility to library cards–and thus to digital e-book lending–as a troubling trend that allows library patrons to choose to borrow instead of buy.  He suggested that patrons see the books as free and so they see no reason to buy e-books.  He even gave an example of how library patrons might go to extreme lengths to avoid paying for an e-book: 

‘”If you are in the state of California, you can easily own a library card for every library in the state of California, and when a book comes out that you want, you can put your name on every wait list in every county, and there are apps being developed to make that easier to do, and so that drives up the number of lends for every book in every library and that causes the amount of money per reader reading a book to go down. And that is the change that we worry about.”

Sargent’s example is uncompelling because it imagines a scenario that seems far from common; the average library user likely does not hold dozens of current cards. In fact, many libraries require patrons to be taxpayers in their service area, or they charge an annual fee to non-taxpayers, which the average individual presumably does not pay. Additionally, it seems unlikely that the average patron would place multiple holds for the same book in multiple systems. If they did, however, Sargent would have to demonstrate that these holds are all lost sales to Macmillan. But it seems that someone so dedicated to getting a library e-book was never going to purchase the book, anyway.

Furthermore, patrons placing holds are possibly increasing Macmillan’s bottom line by prompting libraries to buy more e-book copies to meet demand and lower hold wait times. If a patron places, say, ten holds at tend libraries, and only reads one of the copies that comes in, doesn’t Macmillan win? The other libraries still purchased a copy to fill the hold and, when that copy is checked out, it counts towards the 52 checkouts a metered copy has, before the library must repurchase the license. (Metered copies are available for two years, or 52 lends, whichever comes first.) Sargent’s claims do not seem to make sense, if you know how libraries work.

The coverage of the meeting suggests to me that Macmillan is not truly open to finding a way forward with libraries. Sargent mentioned that he is interested in either limiting availability or driving up price, but that libraries are opposed to both. (Physical books are generally much cheaper than e-book licenses for libraries.) It seems that the two sides are currently at an impasse.

Interestingly, however, the AMA might bear fruit in that librarians finally recognized that they may have to address how much power Amazon has over the e-book industry going forward, as Sargent confirmed his data has been coming from the online retailer. I have always found it odd that many libraries seem to purchase books or program materials from Amazon, and to encourage patrons to shop there by asking patrons to use Amazon Smile and name their library as the recipient of their donations. Amazon has a long history of harming authors and publishers, and they have exclusive content they refuse to allow libraries to buy, creating more social inequity. Public libraries supporting Amazon never made sense. Perhaps now libraries will begin to realize that cheap prices might not be a fair exchange for giving Amazon a near monopoly on bookselling.

The Macmillan e-book embargo will likely continue for some time. However, I have hope that library and consumer boycotts will encourage Macmillan to reconsider their position and to recognize the power libraries have to market books, to create readers, and, yes, to create consumers.

Is Amazon Really Cheaper than Barnes & Noble?

Amazon has made numerous headlines over the years for their poor treatment of employees and delivery drivers, their potential tracking of customers’ info through Alexa devices, and their strategy of selling items (like books!) at a loss in order to drive competitors out of the market. (Krysta explains more in her post on why she won’t buy books on Amazon.) Yet the online retailer is immensely successful, and one of the reasons customers cite for shopping there is cheaper prices.

My personal experience is that Barnes & Noble online often has the newest books for similar prices to Amazon (both discounting more steeply than indie sellers can), so I decided to do a mini experiment to check on some book prices. I looked at prices for a book on its release day, a book that has yet to come out, a book that came out recently, and a book that came out years ago. Here are some quick comparisons:


A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

Prices checked January 7, release day.

Amazon: $13.39

A Heart So Fierce and Broken Amazon Price

Barnes & Noble (Exclusive Edition): $13.39

Verdict: The Same Price

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Pre-order price listed on January 7.

Amazon: $19.59

Barnes & Noble (Exclusive Edition): $19.59

Verdict: The Same Price

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Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance by Jennieke Cohen

Price for a book released in the previous month.

Amazon: $13.69

Barnes & Noble: $16.43

Verdict: Amazon is about $3 cheaper.

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Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Price for a backlist paperback.

Amazon: $8.39

Barnes & Noble: $9.89

Verdict: Amazon is slightly cheaper.


Conclusion

This small set of examples confirms what I have noticed in my personal observations. Barnes & Noble and Amazon tend to have similar pricing for new and upcoming books, particularly ones that are bestsellers or receiving a lot of hype. For other books, Amazon might be slightly cheaper, but the price difference can range from a few pennies to about $3.

(Yes, this is mostly about Barnes & Noble online, but check with your local store about whether they will honor the online price for the “purchase online, pick up in store” option. Also, shipping is free with a Barnes & Noble membership or free on a $25 order–something I often see readers grumble about, but it’s worth noting that Amazon has basically the same shipping options–free with paid membership or free on a $35 order.)

In pure economic terms, saving any money is good, whether it’s 10 cents or 10 dollars. However, there may be other factors that influence that your decisions on where to buy books. If, like me, you are not a fan of Amazon’s treatment of publishers and employees and their attempts to gain a monopoly on the bookselling market, it might be worth spending a couple extra dollars here and there to support other sellers.

Briana

Should Authors Create Original Content for Amazon–Unavailable to Non-Subscribers?

Recent months have had librarians reeling from the news that new e-content metering restrictions, along with embargoes by Blackstone Audio and Macmillan, will limit the ability of libraries to provide information to their patrons. Simon and Schuster and Hachette moved from a perpetual model (in which libraries purchase the license to content and then keep it forever) to one that forces libraries to re-purchase a license to their e-content every two years. (Penguin Random House began metering last year.)  Meanwhile, Blackstone struck a deal with Amazon in which titles published (not distributed) by Blackstone would be available exclusively only on Audible for the first three months after release.  And Macmillan announced that, beginning November 1, libraries would be allowed only one copy of  new e-book releases for two months after publication. The policy is currently understood to apply also to consortiums, so library systems that share e-book catalogs would be allowed one copy for multiple libraries.

All these changes have had libraries wondering how they will continue to promote equal access when major publishers deny them the opportunity to purchase certain materials.  But libraries were already struggling with the inability to access certain resources when Audible (owned by Amazon) announced last year that they were acquiring exclusive content from big-name authors like Margaret Atwood and Michael Lewis.  Currently, libraries are unable to purchase and share original Audible content, meaning that readers who wish to listen to it have to pay a subscription.  Those who are unable to afford the subscription simply cannot read certain new titles.

Allowing libraries to purchase Audible titles should not hurt Amazon’s bottom line.  Despite the fact that libraries lend materials free, they do pay for them (often above market price for e-content); Library Journal says that libraries spend 1.35 billion dollars each year on building their collections.  Some of that money could be going to Audible, if they would remove their restrictions on library lending.  In the meantime, however, the question emerges: should authors create original content for Audible, knowing that libraries are prevented from sharing that content with people with lower incomes?

Authors, of course, need to make money.  And they deserve to paid for their creative endeavors.  No one can blame them if Amazon offers them a good deal (even if Amazon has a track record of hurting publishers).  I wonder, however, if some of the big-name authors could use their popularity to pressure Amazon into creating a model that promotes, rather than prevents, equal access.  Because if we remain silent too long about all the changes affecting libraries’ abilities to pay for content, this will become our new normal.  And the fight for equal access will have taken a huge step back.

Amazon (Physical) Bookstore Review

Discussion Post

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Amazon Bookstore in Manhattan (there will be a second one in a couple months) and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it after reading some ambivalent reviews from mainstream sources.

The primary complaints seem to be:

  1. You have to pay list price for the books unless you are an Amazon Prime member (i.e. The physical stores are really an avenue to push Prime sign ups, though no employee would probably actually say this).
  2. The stores stock “only” about 3,000 titles (because covers–not spines–face out on the shelves).

Personally, I loved the set-up of the store.  I think there’s a benefit to being able to really see a curated selection of books, rather than getting stuck staring at the spines of 10,000 books I was never interested in buying anyway.  So, no, I wouldn’t go to a physical Amazon store to purchase something very specific or obscure.  Yet the experience of browsing is easy and a ton of fun.  The books are easy to see and recognize, they’re sorted into fun categories like “Books readers finished in under 3 days,” and you know everything in the store received 4 stars or higher than Amazon.  (Though an employee clarified the ratings are taken not from Amazon.com as a whole, but from users who live near the geographic area where the store is located.)  I would 100% consider coming here to purchase something mainstream or to just look around and purchase something that caught my eye.

The store does have some non-book merchandise (board games, tech gadgets, colored pencils, etc.), but, percentage-wise, the focus seems on books.  For instance, there was a small case containing maybe six different Funko Pop characters–as opposed to the hundreds you can find in a large Barnes & Noble.  Beyond these random items, there is, of course, a full corner of the store dedicated to Amazon’s own tech–Kindles, TVs, the Amazon Echo, etc.  All these are displayed so you can test them out, and there are employees dedicated to answering questions about just these.

I didn’t purchase anything from the store, but the ease of the process seems as though it can vary.  If you have the Amazon app on your phone and belong to Amazon Prime, you should be able to show that to the cashier and get the Amazon discounted price on the product.  If you’re not a Prime member and don’t want to sign up or get the free trial, you’re going to pay the list price of the books.  The store does not accept cash at all, and you’re supposed to have the credit card listed on your Prime account with you.  (So my friends and I watched another customer struggle while he explained that his wife belongs to Prime, but the credit card listed on the account is also hers, and he wasn’t carrying it.  I’m not sure what the outcome of this case was.)

You also can only sign up for Student Prime online, so my friend was unable to join in-store when she made her purchases.  However, Amazon really, really wants you to join Prime, so if you do pay list price in the store, you can always sign up for Prime later and then use a code on your receipt to get a refund for the difference between the price you paid and the Amazon.com discounted price.  (I suspect this is part of the reason the store does not accept cash.)

Yet, whatever hiccups there are with ease of paying, I suspect Amazon will soon iron them out.  Whatever your opinion of the company is, I think most people agree they’re efficient and good at getting what they want–which, in this case, is people using Prime to pay for items in a physical store.

I was half-expecting to dislike the store (because if you think of it as mainly a front to bribe people into getting Prime, it does seem mercenary).  However, the experience of walking around the store and browsing was really great, and I would have been interested in buying tons of the books if I weren’t trying to save up some money.  Selection wasn’t a problem and, come on, you can buy anything obscure you want from Amazon’s website anyway.  The employees were also incredibly helpful and seemed excited to be working there.  One compared the vibe of the store to that of an indie bookstore, and while it’s kind of laughable to put Amazon and indies into the same category, I kind of see what meant.  I would definitely be interested in going back.

Have you been to any of the Amazon bookstores?  Would you be interested in visiting one?

Briana