Amazon Unlimited

July 18, 2014

The disruption continues, and it’s hard not to see the announcement of the new Kindle Unlimited Service as a significant challenge to libraries.

Let’s review how things stand with libraries right now. Most public library budgets took a hit during the recession, meaning they had less money to provide new content. At the same time, some of our patrons developed a preference for ebooks over print. Meanwhile, the Big Five publishers and ebook distributors together jacked up the price of new ebooks by as much as nine times, or restricted their use in various ways, while still preserving the legacy model of one user at a time. That, in turn forces libraries to buy multiple copies, and forces patron to wait—often for months—for popular titles.

Bottom line: that’s a setup that strikes at the public libraries’ primary business—loaning new materials. Still, few libraries in the United States assess taxes of as much as $100 a year per household. So if you read a lot, a library still saves you money, even if most library checkout systems are not only expensive, but cumbersome to use.

Now consider the Amazon alternative. Consumers can sign up for $9.99 a month, and immediately have instant access to over 600,000 titles, including many bestsellers. Right now, it appears that the Big Five holdings aren’t available through this channel. But if the interface is as simple as “Buy Now with 1-click,” I’m guessing that many readers will jump the library ship. It’s still not clear how many authors will find this new service of interest.

On the one hand, providing hot new books in preferred formats isn’t the only thing we do, and this won’t affect services such as children’s storytime attendance, public access to computers and Wi-Fi, the need for community meeting space, and so on.

On the other, none of those services is as intensively used and associated with our brand as content. And with more and more power in the marketplace, the future of Amazon appears unlimited.