There can be no question on this issue: electronic books provide easier access to knowledge and entertainment for people than has ever before been possible. Hundreds, even thousands of books can be carried around on even the most basic e-readers or modern electronic devices, and the ability to borrow these materials from the library only expands that access farther. Someone with a ten-year-old refurbished Nook or Boox device can have just as much enjoyment reading ebooks as someone who can afford a $1500 ipad or dedicated e-ink reading tablet.
But there are some inherent problems with ebooks. Or, rather, problems exist within the world of publishing that exacerbate the challenges faced by libraries that want to provide these collections to their patrons. Problems that bloomed to new heights with Amazon and other tech giants, though hardly end there. The greed of the big publishers has always been a problem for the creatives who actually build our culture, but Amazon’s intentionally predatory practices have led to an increasing wave of devastation in the publishing industry.
Amazon, for instance, now “enjoys a lock on the trade book market, selling more than 50 percent of physical copies in the US, and even more ebooks and audiobooks. As of 2020, the authors Guild says, [Amazon] controls more than 80 percent of sales for some publishers” (Giblin & Doctorow, 2022, p. 12). To be clear, the big publishers had been snapping up little publishers and concentrating the market before Amazon arrived, but the conditions only got worse once Amazon arrive don the scene. Largely, because Jeff Bezos wanted to intentionally destroy small publishers, destabilize the large ones, and grab unlimited monopsony powers for his own company.
A prime example of this process was Amazon’s “Gazelle Project”, which was “a scheme designed to shake down small publishers for better and better terms” that Bezos snidely nicknamed based on the idea that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle" (Giblin & Doctorow, 2022, p. 21). Of course, Apple and Google soon stepped in with increasingly terrible deals of their own, choking the market through proprietary app stores, massive semi-legal holdings acquisitions and mergers, and downright sinister dark-pattern techniques.
So, what does all of this mean for libraries? Well, as Cory Doctorow and Rebbeca Giblin explain in their 2022 book Chokepoint Capitalism, “as publishers go around gobbling up others and being gobbled up themselves, they have sought to recover losses to amazon with gains exacted from writers and libraries” (Giblin & Doctorow, 2022, p. 35).
This is a huge problem, because libraries have seen a major shift in collection use. While print collections still count for well over half the total patron activity, by 2017 “libraries spent 27 percent of their collection budgets on electronic materials” (Kelly, 2019). That number has only grown. However, libraries “have seen mounting costs and onerous conditions for the electronic materials they buy from major publishers, even as electronic materials account for an ever larger share of their collections” (Giblin & Doctorow, 2022, p. 35).
This was all the publisher’s own fault, by the way. Their own predatory practices, combined with bad choices made when licensing their works, and terrible choices regarding their fight in support of Digital Rights Management, paved the way for Amazon’s destructive takeover.
Regardless, by 2019, publishers were stabbing wildly at libraries and authors, trying to recoup their own self-inflicted wounds. New rules from some of the then “Big Five” publishers, declared that for “the first eight weeks after an e-book goes on the market, a library system” could only buy a single copy (and each copy has additional restrictions on how often it can be lent to patrons), a severe blow when “a large library system like New York’s or Chicago’s might have ordered hundreds of e-book copies” (Neary, 2019). They were following Amazon’s lead, as the dirty giant had long refused to license its publications on any terms at all to libraries.
It was the Covid-19 pandemic that gave libraries a brief reprieve, thanks to laws passed in a handful of U.S. states that required “publishers to license titles to libraries on reasonable terms” which forced Amazon to finally license some of its works for library access, a move that spilled over into the big publishers as well. However, some publishers, “like Hachette, make their books available to north American libraries but refuse to license them to libraries throughout the UK, Australia, and New Zealand” (Giblin & Doctorow, 2022, p. 35).
The American Library Association (along with organizations like EveryLibrary, and other major powers within the library ecosystem) have continued to fight back against the corporate storm. And legal systems have taken notice of the corporations' “abusive pricing as well as denial and delay of e-book sales to libraries” (Neary, 2019), which is a small light of hope in a dark struggle with far-reaching consequences.
What all this means is that libraries are on the front lines of a quiet war raging across the cultural and legal landscape of the planet. No country is safe, no political party is free from complicity, and no corporate-led armistice can be trusted. But laws that force corporations into compliance with ethical, equitable standards, are the best bet as we move forward into the second quarter of the 21st century’s information age.
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Giblin, R., & Doctorow, C. (2022). Chokepoint capitalism: How big tech and big content captured creative labor markets and how we’ll win them back. Beacon Press.
Kelly, H. (2019, November 26). E-books at libraries are a huge hit, leading to long waits, reader hacks and worried publishers. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/11/26/e-books-libraries-are-huge-hit-leading-long-waits-reader-hacks-worried-publishers/
Neary, L. (2019, November 1). You May Have To Wait To Borrow A New E-Book From The Library. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/11/01/775150979/you-may-have-to-wait-to-borrow-a-new-e-book-from-the-library
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