The Google book scanning project has generated a fair amount of worry among academic librarians.
The recent settlement with Google allowing for scanning to go forward has caused additional concerns. The Chronicle quotes The American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries in a comment to the judge overseeing the settlement with Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers :
I wonder if my academic librarian colleagues are worried about the wrong company.
Is it possible that Amazon has developed a much stronger monopoly position vis-a-vis the books that library patrons (students, faculty, staff) really care about?
The evidence why we should worry about Amazon:
1. The Kindle Ecosystem: The Kindle is not a device, but an ecosystem. It includes (now 2) Kindle readers, the Kindle App (for the iPhone/Touch), and the Kindle store. Amazon has been brilliant in building this ecosystem, and the seamless connections between these elements is the main reason why nobody buys the (superior) Sony reader.
I think it is a fantasy to think that devices like forthcoming Plastic Logic reader will displace the Kindle device, as the most likely route is that Amazon will license a Kindle reader to new devices. As of this writing Amazon has ~275,000 items in the Kindle store. Amazon's wealth insures that the they have the resources to invest in building this library. All of this means that Amazon will be as dominant in e-books as Apple is in music downloads. It will be very difficult for publishers to start their own e-book businesses, as they will lack the e-book ecosystem.
2. Closed Standards: The Kindle reader is a closed standard. Amazon insures that books purchased on its site can only work on a Kindle device. Given that the Kindle e-book library does and will dwarf all other libraries this means that if you want to read an e-book you will most likely be reading it on a Kindle device.
3. Audiobooks: Discussions of digital books often leave out audiobooks. This is unfortunate, as audibooks are another digital format that offers an alternative to the printed books. The dominant player in the audiobook industry is Audible.com, and Audible is owned by Amazon (purchased in 2008 for $300 million). There is every reason to believe that audio and digital books will begin to converge, both with improving text-to-speech software on Kindles, and with integrated delivery that allows Amazon buyers access to either format (and a reader that moves the file along to where the reader left off). The value proposition of audibooks for time-starved readers is clear, and I think the business will dramatically grow as young people raised on iPods enter their prime book buying age.
4. Business Models: The reason I think that academic librarians (and academics) should be worried about Amazon is that the companies business model does not appear to be friendly to libraries. As far as I know, Amazon does not allow libraries to license the the digital content (Kindle books and Audible books) to be then "lent out" on a patrons device (my Kindle, my iPod). Rather, the pilot programs I've seen have from libraries have required that you check out the Kindle device, only being able to read the books pre-loaded on the device. This is nuts. I want to have access to the 275,000 books on my Kindle from my library. Same goes for audiobooks. It does not appear that Amazon has any program where the library can pay a fee and then have the audiobook available to loan to the users iPod. Overdrive appears to be the most popular library audibook service, but only offers a very small catalog of books that work on iPods.
*Note: Libraries are the biggest buyers of Audibooks....see the Huffington Post on Blue Grass Regional Library in Columbia, Tennessee, that spends $50,000 a year on audiobooks. The article reports that libraries are 43% of the audibook market, while Amazon/Audible is only 9%. No data on academic libraries.
The net result of all this is that, today, libraries cannot supply books in the format that more and more people want to read them in (e-book and audio).
Libraries are great at getting paper books. If my College library does not have a paper book they will gladly inter-library loan it, having it on my desk in a couple of says. But I don't want a paper book. I want an audiobook so I can multitask. I want an e-book so I can keep it on my Touch and read it when I get a few free moments, or put it on my Kindle so I can jump between books while only carrying one.
So lots of my money now goes to Amazon to buy the audio and e-books that I can't get from my library. At their best, libraries turn scarcity into abundance. When paper books were scarce and expensive the library was essential. Today, e-books and audiobooks are scarce (expensive) but the library cannot (or does not) provide them.
Libraries should be asking themselves are they in the business of providing their communities "paper books".
I wonder if the energy and worry that libraries have directed towards Google scanning could be re-directed towards Amazon, audio and e-books. A scanned book by definition becomes more available, but does not foreclose the ability to house or locate the paper copy.
How will libraries deal with the Amazon monopoly on e-books and audiobooks? Will libraries try to work with Amazon, to convince the company that it is in its interest to do deals with libraries (increased revenues) and license their content? Or will libraries invest resources in supporting alternative to the Amazon monopolies? Will academic libraries be on the front-lines in fighting over-restrictive DRM regimes for e-books and audiobooks to facilitate a reasonable lending model?
The first step towards a solution is recognizing that we have a problem. As for me, I'm off to Audible to purchase my next book.