By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries
Storytelling is as old as cave art – and so pervasive that it continues to be the bedrock of human communication; beginning, even now, as adults use songs, stories and age-old lullabies to calm their restive babes. And in a pandemic with the global shutdowns that ensued, ebooks have become the clear choice over print and audiobooks for many. Booksellers have been seriously affected by the pandemic with a Forbes report finding that “a wide variety of library programs, online ebook services, and publishing houses large and small have debuted special coronavirus-spurred deals to compensate.
Jamie Fiocco, president of the American Booksellers Association’s board, explained the loss of indie bookstores during COVID as a crisis. In a 2019 Publishers Weekly interview she reported that only a third of indie bookstores were profitable before coronavirus, calling the pandemic a “retail apocalypse.” How the industry is able to recover from this is complicated by other changes that occurred during this time.
Self-publishing has grown dramatically in the past two years. According to Bowker’s Self-Publishing in the United States, 2013-2018, self-publishing grew 287% in 2006 and, in 2018 alone, self-published titles grew by 40%. Amazon has been key to this self-publishing movement, establishing Kindle ereaders in 2007 and setting up the Kindle Store as a means to provide content to their growing audience. The Kindle Store allows users to browse the over one million titles in their collections and buy/download materials directly on their Kindle or other device.
BRINGING EBOOKS INTO LIBRARIES ACROSS THE GLOBE
No radically new technology arises without accompanying disruption to existing companies, methods and distribution systems. Publishing is currently in the midst of one of the most radical changes in history.
In January 2021, OverDrive reported impressive growth in the numbers of digital books borrowed from school and public libraries: 289 million in 2020—a 33 percent increase over 2019 for public and school libraries. Publish Drive reported earlier this year that discoverability (and sales) are affected by far more than any single channel: “Get the discoverability your content deserves, especially in Google searches. If you look at just Android devices, that’s 2.5 billion potential readers you miss by selling exclusively on Amazon. Also, listing your content in multiple places enhances your Google search ranking.” Of course, for libraries, discoverability is not as prohibitive as being able to connect readers with the content they need and want.
Jennie Rothchild, writing on a recent blog notes that “librarians pay wholesale for print books that can remain in circulation for literal decades, but ebooks are very different in terms of access and in terms of cost.”
“For example,” Rothchild continues, “before COVID hit, a typical deal at Macmillan was that public libraries had to pay $60 for any e-book and could lend it out only 52 times or for two years, whichever came first, after which they had to repurchase the e-book. Publishers temporarily lowered some prices and loosened rules on select titles during the pandemic, but the costs overall still severely limit the ability of libraries to offer many books. Some publishers, particularly Amazon, still refuse to let libraries get access to any of the e-books they publish, while publishers like Macmillan have withheld new releases from libraries.”
In a recent Slate article titled “Where is Our Spotify for Books?,” the authors point out how the “first sale doctrine” has hampered the ability of libraries to meet the needs and best interests of their communities. “The reason publishers can charge a higher price is because of a quirk in copyright law…Unlike with physical books, the courts have said libraries have no right to buy an e-book and then lend it to their members. Instead, publishers only “license” e-books and can deny that license to a library or condition the right to lend the e-book on paying that much higher price.” This legal standard continues to thwart any efforts by libraries to meet the needs and best interests of their users.
The pandemic has certainly impacted the entire book industry, the reading public and the availability and cost of books. However, a major agreement has been signed by Amazon that promises a step in the right direction for all concerned – readers, writers, publishers, bookstores and libraries.
DPLA & THE PALACE PROJECT CREATE A ‘REAL DEAL’ FOR LIBRARIES & AMAZON
In May 2021, Amazon announced a game changing agreement with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to distribute 10,000 audiobooks and ebooks to libraries. The deal allows libraries to receive digital books directly from Amazon imprints, including Thomas and Mercer, Lake Union, Amazon Crossing and Montlake. Good Ereader’s Michael Kozlowski called this “a very big deal,” and it is. Books will be made available through the DPLA Exchange.
In a related move, the DPLA, Knight Foundation and LYRASIS have announced “a transformational, library-centered platform for digital content and services” they are calling The Palace Project. Funding for this came from the Knight Foundation in order for DPLA and LYRASIS to “develop and scale a robust suite of content, services, and tools for the delivery of ebooks, audiobooks, and other digital media to benefit public libraries and patrons.” Michele Kimpton, former DPLA director of business development and senior strategist, will lead The Palace Project as LYRASIS’ global director of The Palace Project division. Its launch is planned for early fall 2021.
This follows much criticism of Amazon, in particular for refusing to sell to libraries as opposed to individuals and acting as a “monopoly.” Such public pressure and the clear opportunity for Amazon to increase their dominance in the publishing realm was actually the result of six months of negotiations between DPLA and Amazon Publishing according to Publishers Weekly. Many library groups, such as the American Library Association’s Ebooks for All, have been working on this goal for many years.
The decision by Amazon, Macmillan and other publishers comes after increasing political pressure from Washington with recently introduced bills and the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee’s 2021 hearings on “Proposals to Curb the Dominance of Online Platforms and Modernize Antitrust Law.” Whether due to political pressure, the need to test the marketplace or other factors, today the outlook for libraries, readers, authors and their published works is looking very positive in the coming years.
AMAZON’S GROWING ROLE IN BOOK PUBLISHING
By opening their website to users of Kindles (and later other devices), Amazon became a major online bookstore for readers across the globe. Amazon’s strategy helped to not only make the Kindle a key platform for ebooks, but led to a leadership position in the industry given the millions of titles and users they attracted. Kindle Unlimited is the latest development, offering users “unlimited reading, unlimited listening” on “any device” on a subscription basis to over one million ebooks and audiobooks. For $9.99/month, members can “read an unlimited number of books each month, but keep in mind you can only hold onto ten titles at a time.”
In another key development, Amazon’s latest publishing initiative, Amazon Publishing (APub) has shown steady growth and has already become what a 2019 Atlantic article calls “a culture-making juggernaut.”
Under the leadership of Jeff Belle, Amazon Publishing established itself as a not only a commercial success but as an imprint setting its sights on a global audience. As Belle related back in 2013: “A couple years ago, I was reading a report on the state of translation by Esther Allen. The report centered on the imbalance between English and the rest of the world when it came to translations, which is really at odds with Amazon’s vision of making every book in every language available to our customers. So I called to Esther to learn more and see how Amazon might help solve this problem. She was very helpful, and one of the outcomes of this was the realization that we were in a good position to discover great voices of the world that had not been translated into English and then introduce them to our English-speaking customers. And so we created AmazonCrossing to do that.”
Under Belle, APub grew to be a major publisher of books, rivaling even the success of Amazon’s other publishing arm: Kindle Direct Publishing which promises authors that they can upload their books in “less than 5 minutes…[and] your book appears on Kindle stores worldwide within 24-48 hours.” As Bezos himself noted in his 2020 letter to shareholders: “We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here.”
APUB – A GLOBAL JUGGERNAUT
Amazon already has established itself with reading subscription services Prime Reading, Prime Student and Kindle Unlimited; however, APub represents a major investment in another sector of the publishing industry, with the stated goal to “make authors happy, connect writers with a global audience, and innovate on behalf of authors and readers.” As Ted Treanor, president of Seattle Book Company, noted in a 2010 article in Publishing Research Quarterly, in their 2009 annual report, Amazon’s “media/book category delivered $5.96 billion, or 1/4 of their total revenue. That’s considerably more than any of the largest companies in the traditional print or digital book business.” And the numbers continue to grow with the emergence of their book publishing division.
“We’ve grown to sixteen imprints,” APub’s website proudly states today, “expanded to nine offices around the world, and helped more than seventy authors (and counting) reach more than one million readers.”
Earlier this year Belle, who headed Amazon Publishing since it began in 2009, left the company. He is widely credited for quickly establishing this Amazon venture as a major international book publisher. In July, Mikyla Bruder began her term in this key role. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she defined her “mission as helping Amazon Publishing, which she described as a midsize publisher, take the next steps forward in its evolution.” Bruder sees Amazon’s formal publishing arm (referred to as APub) as “an author-centric publishing house.”
Today APub consists of 16 imprints that publish trade fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books for a global audience. And it continues to grow and open new avenues for potential submissions. The company has editors for each of their imprints and the process of contacting the imprints has been made very straight-forward for any interested author.
Amazon has, until now, provided very little publicity and access to the media for its operations, its imprints and its authors. However, APub has agreed to provide access to Against the Grain and Charleston Hub to bring insider stories from APub authors themselves – and others – about this growing publishing empire. In the next parts of this series, we will highlight how key authors themselves see their work, their audience and working with Amazon.
In the next articles in this series, we will hear from APub authors themselves on their experiences, insights and the future of book publishing. We begin with award-winning, longtime APub author, Jeff Deaver, whose books have been translated into over twenty-five languages and have sold over 50 million books worldwide.
By:Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries