September 15, 2014

News and Analysis: Here Comes Amazon’s All-You-Can Read E-Book Subscription Service

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We’re not at all surprised to learn that some sort of Amazon ebook subscription service is coming. Are you?

In our many posts about all-you-can-read ebook subscription services (over a long period of time) and as recently as yesterday we said to expect something like what’s being reported today.

Quick Background

Amazon already offers one free book a month to all Kindle users who are also Amazon Prime subscribers via their Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) service. It began in November 2011 with about 5,000 titles available and as of January 2014 offers access to more than 500,000 ebooks.

Since then other all you can read services have come online including Oyster and Scribd as well as services for kids books like EPIC.

Today’s Report

Laura Hazard-Owens points out in her article published today, “, that the folks from Seattle appear to be preparing for a roll-out of a new service.

The report includes a look at some of the content KOLL makes available today from all of the Harry Potter titles to a lot of self-published books.

Hazard-Owens also mentions that the new service will offer some audiobook material along with ebooks.

Overall, precisely what’s happening at this hour is TBD.  Of course, we will keep you posted.

However, allow me to share a couple of scenarios that MIGHT be happening (aka speculation).

1. Amazon is going to rename KOLL as Amazon Unlimited and offer it ALL customers, including those who don’t have a Kindle and/or don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime. The total number of books mentioned on the Amazon web page (now offline) is very close to the number of books KOLL offers at this point. At the same time there will be no limits on how many books you can borrow each month. Remember, as of today KOLL as well as Scribd and Oyster offer all books to all subscribers at all times. In other words, users never have to be concerned about a book being checked-out and unavailable as they do with a library ebook.

2. Amazon is expanding the KOLL service to the current user group (Prime subscribers with Kindles) and the number of books mentioned on the web page is a red herring/placeholder until Kindle Unlimited is formally announced. The $9.95 will be a stipend to a a Prime subscription and their will be no limits on how many books you can borrow.

One thing that WILL happen because of Amazon’s apparent growth in the all-you-can-read market (regardless of what they precisely plan to offer) is that there will be a greater awareness of the availability of ebook subscription services. Are libraries ready to compete (or call it what you like) with these services not only today but also in the future? As I pointed out earlier this week, a recent AP article about Oyster and Scribd makes no mention that many public libraries offer collections of ebooks for free to cardholders.

Since word of Kindle Unlimited leaked on Wednesday the amount of press coverage it has received was massive with few if any mentions of library ebook services. Now, another round of press attention. If libraries could only get a small percentage of this attention for the services they provide (any of them, free to the end user) things would be different in the library world.

Final Thoughts

Throughout this period I have suggested that the library community (especially the public library world) become familiar with these services and at least discuss their possible implications for libraries in terms of library usage, collection development, and budget.

I’ve also explained (or at least tried to) that whether or not these services (and likely more to follow especially genre or subject services) become all the rage and move people away from the public library for content they will also play a role in public perception and relevance of the library which is still often focused on books/ebooks and being quiet by the media. In other words, Oyster and Scribd have to do a good job marketing their services to thrive and survive. Of course, Amazon is one of the best at creating buzz about and attention for whatever they do. Sadly, and far from a new concern, is that libraries don’t do a good job of marketing, especially on a meta (national or even state) level. Yes, there are some excellent examples of libraries doing great work in marketing but again I am talking big picture.

My number one reason for pointing out the possibility of these services becoming mainstream over the past three years was (and remains) an attempt to make libraries proactive, aware, and get them planning for the future, versus—as we too often see—reactive, with an “oh no, the sky is falling” mindset.

Will all of the ebooks library’s have acquired at very high prices (and cannot be sold to others even for pennies on the dollar) mean little in a few years? Will we be paying later for what what we are paying for today? I don’t have any answers but I do think it deserves a discussion.

By the way, I realize that not every public library user will want to pay to or can afford to pay for a subscription service. These issues need to be part of the discussion. However, we’re seeing what was once fee-based content services offer free ad-supported services. For example, Hulu is introducing more free content this summer and the entire Spotify collection of about 13 million tracks is completely free for tablet and desktop users who don’t mind some commercials each hour.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see ad-supported ebooks become part of the landscape in the future.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting (in this case as a point of information) that Amazon has a great deal of DATA (close to three years worth) about how people borrow, read, interact, and return ebooks borrowed from a library. This is valuable information they can use to make their service very appealing to current library users.

Where do they obtain this data? The answer is simple. If you have ever borrowed (or assisted someone borrowing) a book on OverDrive and placed it on a Kindle,  you and/or your library shared the data with Amazon. My guess is this was part of the reason why OverDrive was able to work out a deal with Amazon. This massive warehouse of data can be extremely valuable to a lot of what Amazon does and it’s likely they also share some of it with publishers.

As we’ve also pointed out for privacy and transparency reasons, Amazon has a permanent record (unless the user manually removes it) of every ebook borrowed from OverDrive and placed on a Kindle device for reading. If the user makes digital notes in the book Amazon also has that data permanently in their database unless the user manually removes it.

So, when, if ever, will a discussion begin?

UPDATE:  Scribd has issued a statement about what appears to be the new Amazon ebook subscription service:

“The apparent entrance of Amazon into subscription market is exciting for the industry as a whole. It’s validation that we’ve built something great here at Scribd. Publishers, authors and readers alike have all seen the benefit, so its no surprise they’d want to test the waters. Successful companies don’t fear competition, but rather embrace it, learn from it and use it to continue to fuel their own innovation which is exactly what we intend to continue doing.”

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Gary Price About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.