Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Amazon Suckers Libraries

A few weeks ago, when Amazon announced a desire to start a “Netflix for books,” I opined that public libraries were doomed. So far, they’ve still been struggling along, but I have a feeling that in the end Amazon is going to get them one way or another.

Eventually, there might be no escape from Amazon, so libraries had better start getting used to it. You might have seen this story about Amazon signing up authors to publish directly through them instead of publishers.

If Amazon can get enough name-brand authors to abandon their traditional publishers, then the future of publishing – at least the sort of popular publishing public libraries buy – will be primarily in Amazon’s greedy but skillful hands.

I could understand the temptation to publish with Amazon. They gave Penny Marshall $800,000 to publish her memoirs. I think I should mention to Amazon that I’ll happily publish the Annoyed Librarian memoirs with them for a quarter of that.

After years of ignoring libraries, Amazon finally did a deal with Overdrive to allow libraries to lend books to Kindles. Librarians had been wanting this for years, but the deal offers a moral: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

From Amazon’s perspective, the deal is fantastic. From my perspective, it’s just amusing, because it looks like librarians got suckered one more time. Here are the instructions to “check out” a Kindle book, in case you haven’t seen them before:

  1. Visit the website of a U.S. library that offers digital services from OverDrive.
  2. Check out a Kindle book (library card required).
  3. Click on “Get for Kindle.” You will then be directed to to redeem your public library loan. You may be required to login to your account — or create a new account — if you’re not already logged in.
  4. Choose to read the book on your Kindle device, free reading app, or Kindle Cloud Reader.

Step three is the one that makes me chuckle. “You will then be directed to” Of course you will! I can’t find any details about deal, but I hope Overdrive isn’t paying Amazon anything for this.

If they are, it gets even better. Libraries are paying Overdrive, and then Overdrive pays Amazon so that Amazon will allow Libraries and Overdrive to send library patrons to Amazon’s commercial website. Way to go!

Even if Amazon is paying Overdrive, it’s still a great deal. Kindle customers who think they might be evading Amazon by going to their library end up back at Amazon’s site anyway. Brilliant.

This is the way public libraries end: shilling for the company that’s going to put them out of business.



  1. Yowch!

  2. Indeed, a case of beware what you wish for combined with falling asleep at the wheel. Honestly, not a single librarian noticed this crap when the deal was going down? I mean, we are getting carping about it now (that black dress librarian lady had a big rant about it recently), but not that much of a peep as it was coming down the pipes. Oh well, what else is new? No wonder we are doomed.

  3. The Kindle has always been a propritary device tied to Amazon. Anyone with a Kindle is neccesarily an Amazon customer in the first place. Don’t see the issue. Certainly no worse than Overdrive’s requirement to download their software to your machine in the first place.

    • Well the people pay for the library so they should have what they want. Sure we all went to library school and we know what they need, but I bet you don’t follow all the advice of your physician gives you either.

      Here is some good advice, get out of public librarianship if you think it is sinking. I did in 2006. Now I make 6 times as much money working for a private firm.

      Sure I miss reading to the kids on Wednesday’s storytime, and I miss doing some of the programming I did for the adults as well, but the extra money makes up for it.

  4. dances, on twitter, I asked the “black dress libraian” and “bobbi” who was going to write the petition against this delivery of captive library patrons to Amazon’s shops and they didn’t reply. see effinglibrarian/status/119097524433846272.
    so yeah, this is a terrible deal, but totally acceptable in the “give the people what the want” school of librarianship. so people get what they think they want because they’re too stupid to know any better, Amazon sells more crap, and librarians file for unemployment. maybe I’ll get one of those sweatshop warehouse shipping jobs at Amazon. We all deserve it.

  5. Yupper – The British Library got heat for something similar. Commenters on that article pointed out the parallel when libraries promote Facebook.

  6. Nostradamus says:

    Overreact much?

    Old news. Most library websites have an Amazon icon on them telling patrons that if they go shopping at Amazon to use the link provided so that Amazon supports the library.

    Honestly, this deal reminds me a lot of that Microsoft case back in the 90’s where they were being sued for being a monopoly. The end result was that Microsoft had to give computers to schools throughout the country. Microsoft cried all the way to the bank.

    At the same time, perhaps we need to look at this from a different point of view. Perhaps we need to actually undertake a study that shows how much people utilize the library with ebooks and other digital content. If the AL is right and ebooks are going to “doom” libraries, then there should be a noticeable drop in book circulation and foot count. Its been several years now and an impact should start showing up in the statistics.

    I will tell you right now that my circ figures for my metro branch library of ~125k docs (of which about 95k are books) the numbers have gone up, not down. Foot count is up, not down. From the interactions I have with some patrons, ebooks have caused them to come to the library more, not less, because now the library factors in as a more important place for their lives. They didn’t like loaning books before, but now that they are looking for content for their e-reader they have a new appreciation for the library and the other services that we offer.

    The biggest problem we have in our library system is (and always has been) the fact that the majority of the population doesn’t even know we exist. We fall right between City Hall and the Police station geographically and, for most of the people that live around here, they use us just about as often. Most are immensely to find out we do exist when they get around to doing a research project, applying for a job, or looking for a book on whatever their Doctor diagnosed them with today. (Or when they mistake us as the place where they come to pay their water bill)

    If libraries take this as an opportunity to connect, we win. If we continue to make this about trying to maintain a system as it was before because of some sad nostalgia, then we will go the way of the music industry. We can’t fight ebooks, just as they couldn’t fight MP3s.

    Let’s not forget that our job is about literacy, and if ebooks make that more accessible to patrons we should embrace it, not shun it. Case in point – the other day I had a colleague of mine argue the case of “libraries are doomed” by saying that we could no longer collect fines because the digital books are deleted after their loan period. Really? We charge fines because we think they are an essential part of our budget? Who budgets like that and why do we think that that’s what our job is supposed to be? Fine people?

    When did we lose sight of the shore line?

    • Nostradamus says:

      Bah… these comment boxes need an edit function. It should say “Most are immensely happy to find out we do exist…”

    • Keytar Girl says:

      These comments need up and down arrows like reddit. This way, I can sit here in my jammies, sipping my tea, clicking “up” and “down” comments. It’ll make me feel like I’m actually contributing to the discussion though I’m not. I’m lazy. What else can I say?

      If I had an “up” arrow, one for the original post by AL and one for the comment Nostradamus.

    • Yeah… fines have a purpose, which is collection control, which is not relevant with electronic texts. They aren’t an income source.

      We’re about all kinds of literacy–technical, cultural, social, etc–and you’re right when it comes to eyes-on-the-prize for that. E-books are also no more competition for the library than videos are. Or than fiction was when it was first introduced and thought of as unworthy of a library collection.

      When Amazon starts offering thrice-weekly storytimes where kids can play tambourines or color pictures of horses after listening to stories, then I’ll worry. In the meantime, not so much. We have a pretty high approval rating, and the new formats are just new formats. They seem to produce *more* work for staff than non-e-books, which doesn’t seem to be a signal that we’re going anywhere anytime soon.

  7. I’m a librarian too. I just want to balance this with the buggy whip idea. If, in fact, Amazon can do what libraries do better than libraries themselves, at a price consumers are willing to pay, they should.

    I drive a car manufactured in Japan. I don’t ride my horse to work. Wait, I don’t even own a horse.

    I think the onus is on libraries to survive and continue provide and improve upon things Amazon can’t or won’t offer.

  8. I think Libraries will be OK. They have a way of muddeling through the murky water.

  9. I feel I am providing my customers with information in a methodology of their own choosing – the Kindle – thru Overdrive, a function they are already familiar with. Will my customer think I have been suckered? They have a Kindle, they are not being shanghaied to Amazon as if they were totally innocent, unawarethat it is a .com.

    This piece has provoked some good discussion here in the workplace, but ending it with “If they are” and “Even if” seems out of character and, in my opinion, just a bit shrill.

  10. These conversations always overlook the readers who do not want to read on an electronic device. Age makes no difference in this discussion.

    Economics, however, do. The price of entry for owning an e-reader is still high, even with Amazon’s reduced (and in my opinion, e-reader game changing) Kindle prices. Once you own the device, you are still paying relatively top-dollar for content that you don’t actually own. (These conversations also seem to take place in a world that is not going through an historic economic crises.)

    Our traffic has certainly increased since we began to offer ebooks through Overdrive (we loan Nooks, too). I think this had more to do with reaching out to a portion of the population who felt the library had nothing for them. Now that we do, these population may realize we have more than just books.

    Historically, librarians have always argued that new-fangled-item-format-x would be the end of libraries. In a way, they are usually right because libraries adapt and change and stay relevant. Could any of us walk into a library c. 1890 and effectively staff it? Probably not without a steep learning curve.

    I believe (and I say believe, because these conversations boarder on religious in nature) that libraries are about more than books and that the ebook revolution cannot be equated to the music industry’s experience with iTunes.

    I believe that librarians who are able to keep pace with technology and ensure that their library stays relevant will not need to worry about their long-term employment prospects (assuming they are currently employed at a financially viable library).

    The public library may one day pass into the dustbin of history, but the e-book alone will not be the murder weapon.

  11. Randal Powell says:

    AL: “If Amazon can get enough name-brand authors to abandon their traditional publishers, then the future of publishing – at least the sort of popular publishing public libraries buy – will be primarily in Amazon’s greedy but skillful hands.”

    Wow. That is brilliant strategy by Amazon. Too bad libraries can’t copy it. I’m sure there are no name-brand library-loving authors who would be willing to write a book for library-only distribution if asked. Time to pack it in and go home.

    Speaking of brilliant strategy: Princeton is no longer going to be carelessly giving away the copyright of academic articles published by their faculty. Way to go Princeton!

  12. I remember being in a Border’s when times where good (remember we were all wealthy). I overheard someone say “I like this SOOO much better than libraries.” Guess who is out of business? I don’t own a kindle. Have no desire too. You need money to own a kindle (or did our library offer to provide those hmmmm). Well anyway, with the way the economy is going we’ll have to wait and see if the masses can afford kindle, won’t we. How do you research – with a kindle???? No, a computer or books(you don’t want to buy)!!! Where do the unemployed and those without computers go for free use of a computer…Amazon… no THE LIBRARY!!!

    • Joyce,

      They’re out of business because they have to make money to survive. Libraries never have to worry about much of anyhthing on the cost side- only that they don’t get too big so they’re budgets are noticed.

  13. Techserving You says:

    Although I almost always agree with you, AL, I have to set you straight on one point. The deal which makes Kindle-formatted ebooks available for public library patrons through Overdrive is actually a great deal for library patrons, as well as for public libraries (money-wise.) Although, I must say that in my experience, every single Kindle “copy” of all popular books are checked out, and you have to go on a (sometimes long) waiting list.

    A deal with Overdrive is available in NH as well as Maine (and probably plenty of other states) and it does not cost the public libraries one cent. In New Hampshire, there is a program called the “New Hampshire Downloadable Books Consortium.” Originally, this provided access to downloadable audiobooks, and ebooks in non-Kindle formats. Now, some Kindle books are available too. In NH, the program is paid for through grants and administered by the New Hampshire State Library. It is available to all public libraries in NH.

    Yes, you do have to have an Amazon account in order to download the book. (I use my own Kindle, so of course I use my own Amazon account, and I am not sure how the few misguided libraries who bought a whole bunch of Kindles to circulate (usually before it was even legal to circulate Kindle books) are dealing with things… whether they have a library account they allow patrons to log into, or whether patrons register the checked-out Kindle to their own accounts, and use their own accounts to download the books.) In any case, yes, patrons are taken to Amazon, sign in if they’re not already signed in, and then download the book. (Once you are signed in, you do not need to further navigate to find the book you selected in Overdrive – you’re there.)

    The fact that this whole process brings more customers to Amazon, and perhaps makes more people buy Kindles, does not escape me. Nevertheless, right now, this is not anything close to an immediate threat to public libraries. And, the libraries are not paying for the service.

    To clarify how it works though… when you enter the Overdrive platform, you are brought into a “library” of sorts of e-content. You can either perform a search for an item in any format, or you can limit the search to Kindle. The “library” of Kindle content is available to the entire state. The patron searching for an item does not just see their own library’s “inventory,” but rather the “inventory” for the entire state… and the patron is “competing” with the entire population of library patrons in that state when it comes to checking out books. So, the state may have 7 “copies” available. The patron can see how many are available (usually none… it took me a LONG time to find one which was available…) and how many people are on the waiting list (for popular books, usually several.) SO, the way this is run right now, it’s kind of cool to have access to free Kindle content, but it has a lot of flaws. Non-fiction books are (no surprise) the ones most likely to be available without a wait.

    To respond to Joyce’s comment… well first of all, Amazon does keep dropping the price of the Kindle… the cheapest one is $79 right now. Second, if Borders were supported by tax dollars, it would not be out of business, regardless of its performance… and it actually did do a lot of things better than libraries do… and many libraries ARE “out of business,” while many bookstores remain in business. So for a variety of reasons, your point really isn’t any kind of a point. You should compare the entire book/e-book industry to the entire public library “industry.” And yeah, you actually CAN do research on a Kindle, although of course you first need to identify what content you want… which you can often do even within Amazon. Most new Kindle books offer full-text searching. Of course most people aren’t going to want to buy the books their using for research, but if they are available through Overdrive through the library website, then people might well research that way. And finally… I really, REALLY dislike the idea of trying to make a case for public libraries by saying they provide computers to people who don’t have computers. Why don’t we just close all public libraries and open up a bunch of computer kiosks around town, or job centers, then? I think the computer issue is the weakest point and almost undermines the case for public libraries.

  14. Techserving You says:

    Just to add… as a Kindle user, I never thought I was “evading” Amazon by getting my content through Overdrive. I suppose there may be a few highly political librarian-type Kindle users who want what Amazon has to offer, but hate that Amazon is an evil corporation, and imagine that if they get the content through Overdrive via their public library, they’ll be going around Amazon completely. But I’m not that kind of person, and most people I have talked to aren’t. It’s not about making sure Amazon doesn’t make a buck… it’s entirely about my own self-interest. *I* don’t want to spend the buck (or ten bucks) if I can get the same content without spending it. I don’t care if I need to go into my Amazon account, as long as when I download the item, my own credit card is not being charged.

  15. Techserving You says:

    Also… you do not need to download the Overdrive software to your own machine to use this service.

  16. I don’t see the issue. It isn’t creating more customers for Amazon – anyone with a Kindle is already an Amazon customer. I used to download library e-books to my iPad using Bluefire Reader and then the Overdrive app, and I MUCH prefer reading on my Kindle because I don’t have to mess with Adobe Digital Editions.

    And our patrons absolutely love it.

  17. As a fellow librarian pointed out to me, if Amazon does not offer a book in digital format, the patron cannot borrow it from their library to put on their Kindle, even if the library owns it. I admit I’m a little biased based on the fact that I work part-time at a certain physical bookstore, but it seems to me that Amazon held a carrot up in front of their customers, saying, “no, don’t buy the OTHER eReader, we’ll let you download from libraries too!” and then instead of making the Kindle more open, they just found a way to keep it locked up tight while maintaining the illusion of giving their customers everything they want.

    As a librarian, as a bookseller, and as a reader in general, Amazon is starting to scare me. How is all of their finagling with exclusive deals not in violation of antitrust laws? They started by trying to dominate the book market, then the eBook market, and now the publishing market as well, and I don’t like the vision of the future of literature and reading I see when I try to imagine a world where Amazon dominates all three.

  18. Ms. Joneser says:

    People also have the choice to NOT buy a Kindle but instead another e-reader. If they have already purchased one, then they have set up an account with Amazon and paid money for the device. A lot of people purchased Kindles before asking whether they could get free books from their library for them.

    As for the convoluted setup – libraries knew nothing about this until Amazon jumped the gun on Overdrive by making their announcement, less than a week before they launched the Fire tablet. Coincidence? I think not.

    I anticipate huge hold lists once we offer Overdrive in a few weeks. We don’t have enough money to meet demand for any format, so people will be waiting for them all. If they choose to purchase the e-book, as they might purchase the print book, then that is their choice.

  19. Considering my patrons so far are pretty much balking at the added layer of complexity, I’m not foreseeing a big problem here. Amazon wanted to get us to subscribe, and they wanted us to not be essentially free advertising for competing formats (lots of people coming up to say, “My daughter wants to buy me an e-reader… which one can I use at the library?”).

    Electronic services aren’t the death knoll of libraries, just one more format that we have to handle. Or, rather, several more. At least they aren’t taking up space in the storage closet like the filmstrip player and reel-to-real tape recorders that were going to be the death of us forty years ago.

    (ETA, because the post seems not to be going through, hopefully THIS format will hit the lockers very soon…)

  20. DON’T WORRY -IT WON’T HAPPEN!! Honestly, the people LOVE paper. We want to snuggle into the couch/sandhill/bed/whatever, with a bendy, 3D book in hand, not fear that halfway thru lunch-hour the batteries/light/machine will fail.

    Libraries will never die.

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