Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Have I Got a Deal for You! Well, It's Not QUITE All Online, and It's Not QUITE Free...

Sorry - the title for this post comes from a commonly quoted trope that makes it way around administrative offices every now and again relative to library budgets and expenditures. And increasingly commonly, thanks to Google and others who like to wear rose-colored glasses, while having their heads firmly buried in, erm, the sand (yeah, that's it). Yet this trope seems to find a way to hang on in the popular mindset (or at least in certain mindsets, at least). It just sounds so appealing - and after all, there is just something so intrinsically attractive to "something for nothing" that we hominids just can't seem to resist.

The new and updated version of this concept appears in its latest form from Amazon, who announced its new Kindle Unlimited service last week (here, directly from Amazon). The concept? For just $10 per month, you can have it all - well, to be more specific, you can read as much as you want at any given time of "over 600,000" books and audiobooks. Pretty simple, really. Stand aside, public libraries, your days are numbered. Bookstores, you might just as well close your doors now. Why would anyone ever buy anything ever again? Textbook purchasing will be a thing of the past. [Author's note: Amazon itself makes none of these claims, at least not publicly. But I have seen these and many other in a variety of articles that have appeared in online sources of news, the blogosphere, and a variety of online comments.

The amount of press this announcement has received is not exactly surprising. On the surface, and from a certain perspective, it's a very interesting proposition. Imagine if you really could get anything you wanted in the way of books and audiobooks, as much as you wanted, from any publisher, in any subject, for any audience? Wow - the mind reels. And as a pretty big fan of reading, not to mention audiobooks, it's certainly an intriguing possibility. No overdue fines, no waiting for a backordered title, not having to schlep to the library to interact with anyone to get your favorite reading and/or listening fix, ever again.

But there seem to be a few catches:

Like this:

And this: [First item only, unless you want to read on..]

And this:

And especially this:

None of these issues are exactly killers in and of themselves. Contracts do get worked out, and it certainly would not be the first time that a major online player decided to make a content decision and then wait for the lawyers to sort it out [coughcoughGOOGLEBOOKScoughcough]. But let's consider a few other points as well:

1. It is not clear to me why major academic presses (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, etc.) would agree to market their content a la carte. They already have proprietary platforms for their online content that they manage to earn plenty of money from. I really need to see some math that suggests that Amazon can do this for them more cheaply while sacrificing none of their current control over their content;

2. Just like the databases that libraries subscribe to to provide much of their online content, this is essentially a rental agreement. If you don't pay, then you lose access. You can keep what you bought - if anything - but don't count on that access being free in perpetuity. I have to believe that somewhere in the service model, Amazon is going to tell you to download and store your encrypted digital copy yourself or start paying them storage charges. it would not be difficult, given the proper scale, to see this model having its own business plan. If x million people buy stuff from you, and are willing to pay you $1 a month to store their content for them on your server using your platform, there's a nice little revenue stream that comes in from you for doing, basically, nothing;

3. The double-edged sword of having a single content provider in charge to that much access is, bluntly, not a particularly attractive prospect for many folks. On one hand, through economy of scale, a single huge purchaser has a great deal of clout when trying to negotiate (or set) pricing for what they want to sell. On the flip side, you are handing an enormous amount of power to a single entity and hoping/trusting that they will always act in the best interest of the public. Or the people who create the content that the company sells. And Amazon certainly has its share of critics who are not exactly enchanted with their business practices;

Barbara Fister, who writes for Inside Higher Education, has an excellent article on her blog Library Babel Fish.  And another very interesting perspective on the subject comes from Brian Mathews in his excellent Chronicle of Higher Education blog The Ubiquitous Librarian. [And a late entry - a follow-up from Barabara Fister, again courtesy of Library Babel Fish].

On the plus side there are some potential benefits for individuals:

1. If you are someone who reads a lot, and who also is a fan of audiobooks, the new service is certainly attractive. The addition of the audiobook collection give Amazon a MAJOR boost over other providers like Scribd and Oyster;

2. It is certainly possible that we could see the book market opened up in the same way that Apple opened up the music market with iTunes. Just want a bit of this, or a bit of that, and not the whole thing? This might be a very interesting way to approach that particular issue in the book world - not right or wrong, just different;

3, It is certainly true that the portability of information continues to improve, and the development of Kindle Unlimited may have a significant part to play in really blowing open that trend. DO NOT OVERLOOK THIS CONSIDERATION;

As a librarian, and a director, I have mixed feelings. It is difficult not to see this as a challenge to libraries, especially to public libraries in particular (though academic libraries are certainly not immune). I do believe that it is a GOOD challenge in the sense that we need to lose our past associations as book warehouses and increase our focus on providing service and assistance in working with information resources. The unfortunate truth is that there will be those who see this as a reason to shutter libraries and the other activities that they offer, from a very short-sighted perspective on THINGS as opposed to PEOPLE.

I think that the real challenge for information professionals is to the need to continue to emphasize what value we add to the resources that are offered through our institutions, and the value that we provide to PEOPLE who seek our assistance (and finding ways to reach out to those who don't).

Oh, by the way. Kindle Unlimited at $120/year multiplied by our headcount last Fall? Over $700K for our students alone. Our materials budget? Including databases, which are funded through student fees, are less than a third of that figure.

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