Not surprisingly, the library industry continues to digest and debate the potential impact from the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) ebook subscription service. It is big news, but KU is not a new concept. Indeed, the concept was established by other similar services such as Oyster and Scribd, and over time will likely include new larger entrants such as Apple or Google. But Amazon’s entrance raises both the stakes and the ire, as few companies such as Amazon have both access to immense capital and the willingness to lose money for an extended period of time in the name of growing market share and expanding its ecosystem. As such, there has been great furor over a recent Forbes article entitled Close the Libraries and Buy Everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription, which, while controversial and perhaps even intentionally inflammatory, highlights the likely ongoing debate as to what such services mean for the role and relevance of libraries in the digital age.
Some arguments focus on the economics: that libraries can provide the same service as Amazon does at a fraction of the cost. Others argue that Libraries Are Not a “Netflix” for Books as they do much more than just offer ebooks, providing physical space, classes and events, and other community services. Both of these positions are completely valid, but do not address the underlying challenge of defining library media strategy in the digital age. In reviewing the recent Library Journal coverage on The Digital Shift, Librarians, Media React to Launch of Kindle Unlimited, I was struck by a quote from Jimmy Thomas, Executive Director of Colorado’s Marmot Library Network, who stated:
“I’m enough of a realist to assume that consumers will gravitate to the cheapest, most convenient source of content … Amazon continues to set a high standard of convenience libraries should attend to. And every time this huge corporation does something on a massive scale, libraries should be reminded to approach services differently. Competing with Amazon on its own terms is not a good direction for libraries. But thinking about how to complement Amazon is worthwhile.”
This statement is not only absolutely spot on, but I believe it provides an interesting strategic roadmap for libraries, with two key takeaways: convenience and complementary services. In other words, libraries cannot hope to beat Amazon, but if they can provide a similarly convenient experience to patrons, and they can complement it with services that Amazon can’t offer, then they will continue to play an important role in the digital age. Let me address these two key points separately.
As a long time technology executive and entrepreneur, I equate convenience with software user experience (UX) in the digital age. UX is not the same as user interface (UI), but represents a more holistic approach to the design of products and service. The next generation library patrons—today’s Millennial and Gen Z audiences—have vastly different expectations for UX. They do not read instructions. They do not want to follow multiple steps to accomplish a task. And they are impatient. All of these trends were furthered by the launch of mobile devices and apps. The expectation is now: you download an app, you use it, and it either works (intuitively, engagingly, and fast) or you move on. This is the new bar for convenience, and if libraries want to cultivate digital usage—beyond the library diehards and those who have no alternative for economic reasons—then libraries must address this UX challenge.
Libraries have an important advantage over Amazon and others, in that they provide a physical space and expertise. While the physical space is critical to community and educational activities, it can also be leveraged in the digital world. Certainly most libraries are already offering Internet access, computers, and tech support. However, not all, but most libraries lack an emphasis on mobile: tablet “reading rooms,” mobile device lending, and mobile training. This should change.
Libraries can also attract new users by hosting special events that leverage local talent, whether that be technology classes that emphasize usage of the library’s digital resources, or local authors who wish to build readership and are happy to have their content showroomed. One example of a mechanism to do that is our recently announced SELF-e program, developed in partnership with Library Journal. It gives libraries something that truly differentiates them, an on-ramp for local authors to get digital books into the library ecosystem, and allow librarians to promote them.
As brand and library guru David Vinjamuri has pointed out, libraries are perhaps one of the most trusted and respected brands, yet the brand is not being leveraged in the digital world. Would you rather get a book recommendation from your local librarian or from an automated database, based on past purchases/views of others and without regard to local circumstances? Libraries need to have the ability to make their brand front and center in the library app experience. Moreover, librarians need to have the ability to make recommendations within the app and promote specific authors, publishers, genres, and events.
Curation is all about building knowledge-based collections of relevant and related content. This activity can extend well beyond ebooks, as curations can incorporate other electronic media such as images, articles, video, and audio. Curation is also not something that lends itself well to computer-based algorithms, as knowledge is specific, geographic, cultural, etc. In short, curation knowledge is local. And when it comes to curation, there is perhaps no more talented group than librarians, and this knowledge can be the basis for building a digital brand and a loyal audience.
While it is challenging to predict winners and losers in the ebook subscription race, I suspect that the market is here to stay and will continue to evolve and mature. Not surprisingly, the Big Five publishers are very cautious of Amazon right now, and the inclusion of their content in KU is an unknown. I suspect over time more experimentation with other platforms will result in an increasing willingness to support the model, particularly if they get paid in full even if a book is only partially read. Other publishers may support alternative platforms in hopes of keeping Amazon at bay, but over time there is no doubt that the bestseller list will increasingly find itself included in these subscription services. Even if the very recent releases don’t make it in the subscription services, I believe we will find books that are one to two years old increasingly offered to help promote new releases from, the same authors and build their brands. If the Big Five don’t get this, there is an increasing cadre of bestselling small and medium-sized publishers and bestselling independent authors who do get it, and this will add to the pressure.
The good news for libraries is that this may alleviate the current stalemate in library ebook distribution models. While over the long term this may have a negative impact on the library’s digital patronage, it will also by extension challenge the value proposition of the traditional ebook platforms. Why would a library pay 3-10 times the ebook list price for single book/single user checkout systems that are not only getting used less, but who’s user experience continues to infuriate patrons and librarians? Perhaps we will find an increased willingness by publishers and authors to provide more competitive and sustainable pricing models, or even better, more reasonable usage models that don’t constrain the libraries ability to provide convenience and complementary services to its patrons.
Andrew Roskill is Chief Executive Officer of BiblioLabs, LLC