The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to borrow that e-book from the library? Sorry, Amazon won’t let you.

Its monopoly is stopping public libraries from lending e-books and audiobooks from Mindy Kaling, Dean Koontz, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Trevor Noah, Andy Weir, Michael Pollan and a whole lot more

(Andrea Chronopoulos for The Washington Post)
8 min

Mindy Kaling has gone missing from the library.

I was looking forward to reading the comedian’s new story collection, “Nothing Like I Imagined.” So I typed Kaling’s name into the Libby app used by my public library to lend e-books. But the latest from the star of “The Office” was nowhere to be found.

What gives? In 2020, Kaling switched to a new publisher: Amazon. Turns out, the tech giant has also become a publishing powerhouse — and it won’t sell downloadable versions of its more than 10,000 e-books or tens of thousands of audiobooks to libraries. That’s right, for a decade, the company that killed bookstores has been starving the reading institution that cares for kids, the needy and the curious. And that’s turned into a mission-critical problem during a pandemic that cut off physical access to libraries and left a lot of people unable to afford books on their own.

Many Americans now recognize that a few tech companies increasingly dominate our lives. But it’s sometimes hard to put your finger on exactly why that’s a problem. The case of the vanishing e-books shows how tech monopolies hurt us not just as consumers, but as citizens.

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You probably think of Amazon as the largest online bookstore. Amazon helped make e-books popular with the Kindle, now the dominant e-reader. Less well known is that since 2009, Amazon has published books and audiobooks under its own brands including Lake Union, Thomas & Mercer and Audible. Amazon is a beast with many tentacles: It’s got the store, the reading devices and, increasingly, the words that go on them.

Librarians have been no match for the beast. When authors sign up with a publisher, it decides how to distribute their work. With other big publishers, selling e-books and audiobooks to libraries is part of the mix — that’s why you’re able to digitally check out bestsellers like Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.” Amazon is the only big publisher that flat-out blocks library digital collections. Search your local library’s website, and you won’t find recent e-books by Amazon authors Kaling, Dean Koontz or Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Nor will you find downloadable audiobooks for Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and Michael Pollan’s “Caffeine.”

Amazon does generally sell libraries physical books and audiobook CDs — though even print versions of Kaling’s latest aren’t available to libraries because Amazon made it an online exclusive.

It’s hard to measure the hole Amazon is leaving in American libraries. Among e-books, Amazon published very few New York Times bestsellers in 2020; its Audible division produces audiobooks for more big authors and shows up on bestseller lists more frequently. You can get a sense of Amazon’s influence among its own customers from the Kindle bestseller list: In 2020, six of Amazon’s top 10 e-books were published by Amazon. And it’s not just about bestsellers: Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, the self-publishing business that’s open to anyone, produces many books about local history, personalities and communities that libraries have historically sought out.

In testimony to Congress, the American Library Association called digital sales bans like Amazon’s “the worst obstacle for libraries” moving into the 21st century. Lawmakers in New York and Rhode Island have proposed bills that would require Amazon (and everybody else) to sell e-books to libraries with reasonable terms. This week, the Maryland House of Delegates unanimously approved its own library e-book bill, which now heads back to the state Senate.

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.

How does Google’s monopoly hurt you? Try these searches.

Amazon declined my request for an interview. “It’s not clear to us that current digital library lending models fairly balance the interests of authors and library patrons,” said Mikyla Bruder, the publisher at Amazon Publishing, in an emailed statement. “We see this as an opportunity to invent a new approach to help expand readership and serve library patrons, while at the same time safeguarding author interests, including income and royalties.”

Amazon announced in December it is in negotiations to sell e-books to a small nonprofit called the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which makes tech for other libraries. But those negotiations don’t include Audible audiobooks and Amazon’s trove of self-published books. And even if that deal happened, it still wouldn’t help most American libraries, which buy and distribute e-books through the maker of the Libby app — a company called OverDrive.

OverDrive chief executive Steve Potash told me he’s had “ongoing dialogue” with Amazon Publishing. “As part of our dialogue, we communicated our willingness to innovate in an effort to support their business strategy,” he said. Amazon said it was in touch with OverDrive but not discussing operational details like with the DPLA.

It’s one thing to haggle over business — but another for Amazon to have the power to unilaterally force libraries to stay in the 20th century. It’s a price we pay for letting Big Tech get so big.

The new digital divide

Since the 1980s, lawmakers have focused on one main way to measure the harm caused by monopolies: Are prices going up for consumers? That’s been a gift to Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. In many cases, they can argue their massive scale has made prices go down or even made things free.

But we’re not just price-sensitive consumers — we’re also citizens. We need products that are made fairly, serve our needs and are equitably distributed. Groundbreaking government antitrust lawsuits filed in late 2020 argue Google’s monopoly hurts us because it’s blocking competitors and prioritizing its own inferior services. In my own investigation, I found Google search results are getting worse as it puts its own business ahead of our interests.

Libraries losing e-books matters because they serve us as citizens. It’s easy to take for granted, but libraries are among America’s great equalizers. Benjamin Franklin helped found one of America’s first because he realized few individuals could afford a large enough collection to be well-informed.

Today, the public service of libraries includes digital collections. They’re a hit in urban and rural areas alike: As of 2018, about 90 percent of American libraries offered online loans. The coronavirus pandemic made digital collections only more crucial — several libraries told me e-book and audiobook checkouts surged by 40 percent or more in 2020.

You can check out an e-book or audiobook by going to your library’s website and entering your library card number. Once you find a book that’s available, you can download and read it on a dedicated device such as the Kindle, through the Web, or on a smartphone or tablet with an all-in-one app like Libby. When your loan is over, the digital copy disappears.

“Imagine if you were put out of work by covid, and you want to read a book about developing your skills. You don’t have the economic wherewithal to get that book yourself — but you log into the Libby app and can’t find it,” says Michael Blackwell, director of the rural St. Mary’s County Library in Leonardtown, Md.

The Internet has, of course, given us access to a lot more information — but also made it possible to erect new walls around some of it.

“Society pays a huge price,” says Michelle Jeske, city librarian at the Denver Public Library and president of the Public Library Association. “How many different platforms does a person have to subscribe to to be able to read all the things they’re interested in? You used to be able to just do that at the public library.”

Amazon treating digital collections differently from print is a “particularly pernicious new form of the digital divide,” the American Library Association told Congress.

Another problem: Libraries can’t archive for posterity what they don’t have access to.

Tech rights group Fight for the Future made an interactive guide called Who Can Get Your Book that explains the ways libraries are being left out.

Replacing the library card with a credit card

Nobody is arguing libraries should get freebies from publishers and authors. In fact, libraries usually pay more than we do for e-books — between $40 and $60 per title and as much as $100 for a popular audiobook. And unlike print books, which libraries can lend out to one person at a time again and again, e-books often come with digital locks that make them expire after a certain number of loans or a set period of time.

These terms have caused tension between libraries and publishers. Many librarians worry the price and terms that come with e-books aren’t sustainable, but most agree providing access is their overriding concern. Some publishers, meanwhile, say easy access to library e-books — just a few taps in the Libby app — hurts their sales. Libraries counter that they’re a net positive, not only because libraries buy so many books themselves, but also because they’re an effective way to market products to customers who also buy books and audiobooks.

Pollan, a James Beard Award winner who published “Caffeine” as an audio-only exclusive with Audible Originals in 2019, said he was unaware his book isn’t available in libraries. “If it were up to me, it would be,” Pollan emailed. He added that he’s planning to publish a new book and audiobook this summer through a different publisher that will make it available.

I emailed Amazon-published authors Kaling, Koontz, Westheimer, Noah and Weir, but they either declined to comment or didn’t respond.

“All books in all formats should be available through libraries. Authors want their books available through libraries,” Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, told me.

In its emails to me, Amazon didn’t specify what about the terms of library loans has kept it from making a deal for a decade. But it’s clear that owning the store, the e-reader and the product made Amazon immune to many of the market pressures on other major publishers.

“The key is that Amazon is the umpire and the player at the same time,” said Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, a think tank that’s critical of Big Tech monopoly power.

E-books at libraries are a huge hit, leading to long waits, reader hacks and worried publishers

Amazon doesn’t need much sales and marketing help, with a command over so many American consumers. Dan Lubart, a publishing industry consultant whose firm monitors retailer bestseller lists to track market behavior, says you can see how aggressively Amazon markets its own e-books to Amazon customers. By his analysis, in 2020, Amazon had at least 238 of its own titles appear as Kindle bestsellers — 10.9 percent of the total distinct titles — with seven of them appearing on its lists over 100 times. Only one other big publisher had a single title show up more than 50 times.

And Amazon knows exactly how valuable library e-books are. Back in 2011, it began allowing library patrons to read OverDrive e-book loans from other publishers on Kindle e-readers.

In 2014, Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, its own paid e-book subscription, for $10 per month. (It doesn’t use the word “library” but says it comes with “unlimited reading” of more than 1 million titles.) And it sells Amazon’s audiobook exclusives through a subscription to Audible, which starts at $8 per month.

Browsing Amazon’s bestseller lists next to OverDrive’s most-borrowed lists, I see two completely different literary universes: the public and the private.

Amazon is building out its own library with an alternative set of books. And instead of a library card, Amazon accepts only a credit card.