This week Amazon Publishing announced its first-ever deal to allow public libraries the ability to lend a small selection of ebooks and audiobooks from their imprints. For years, Amazon has banned libraries from accessing every digital book it controls, despite outcry from activists, librarians, and authors. This crack in the armor of Amazon’s mission to "turn the library card into a credit card" is proof that organizing works, even against the goliath of Amazon’s monopoly.
When we first heard that Amazon had stopped stonewalling public libraries, we were excited by the victory—but then we learned more. Nothing has changed in the struggle for equity in e- and audio- book distribution except that Amazon has found "a clever way for Amazon to counter criticism over its refusal to work with libraries thus far without getting in too deep." We do not even need to update our website WhoCanGetYourBook.com because tens to hundreds of thousands of digital books, including titles by Trevor Noah and Michael Pollan, are still blocked for public libraries.
The thing is, Amazon is such a monopoly that when in this instance they say "ebooks" and "audiobooks" they don’t mean the 40,000+ Audible Original audiobooks that they won’t let libraries touch, or the untold thousands of works that are self-published exclusively for readers who pay Kindle. They are referring to the approximately 10,000 titles that Amazon Publishing imprints like Thomas & Mercer, Montlake, and 47North have acquired—a sliver of the works that publishing activists are fighting for equitable access to.
And what’s worse—Amazon isn’t allowing libraries to actually purchase these e- and audio- books. They are only on loan to libraries through restrictive licensing agreements that are meant to extract taxpayer money from public institutions over and over. Amazon can revoke access, change the price, or delete a book they don’t like from existence at any time, as they did with Orwell’s 1984 in 2009. When it comes to Amazon’s digital books, the corporation remains in ultimate control of what’s available at the public library. And without the ability to own digital books, libraries cannot perform essential functions for our society such as preservation, accessibility, and stable collection development.
One win that advocates can truly celebrate in this deal, however, is that these e- and audio- books will not be used by Amazon to spy on library patrons. The Digital Public Library of America cut a licensing deal that shields library patrons from Amazon’s prying eyes by keeping all patron data within their app—as opposed to letting Amazon slurp up all the data of public library patrons who opt to read an ebook on Kindle.
With this deal, Amazon could have pioneered equitable access to all their digital books. Instead they’re just slinking a small portion of the books they control into line with a terrible status quo. But those who are fighting for the future of public libraries can still take heart—this deal shows us that Amazon is feeling the pressure of activists, authors, and librarians. We will continue to demand terms for public libraries that are truly worth celebrating: the right to own and preserve all digital books just like paper books.
This statement can be attributed to Lia Holland (she/they), Campaigns and Communications Director at Fight for the Future.