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Questions About The Washington Post's Story on 11 Book Trends of the Past Decade

Why so easy on Amazon?

January 19, 2020
 
 

At the end of 2019, the Washington Post book critic Ron Charles published a piece titled "11 Trends That Changed the Way We Read This Decade."

Should we worry Charles went so easy on Amazon in his piece, given that Jeff Bezos owns the Post?

Of the 11 book trends of the last decade discussed by Charles, none mention the concentration of ownership and control that Amazon exerts in the digital book marketplace.

Amazon has a market share of over 80 percent in the $5.5 billion ebook market.

While Charles does put the rise of audiobooks on his list of 11 trends -- "everybody started listening to audiobooks" -- he fails to mention that Audible (an Amazon subsidiary) controls over 40 percent of the audiobook market.

To what extent does Amazon's dominance of the ebook and audiobook markets harm readers, by tamping down innovation and pricing competition?

Or is it the case that Amazon's integrated ownership of digital book platforms is driving innovation, with Whispersync technology (Kindle and Audible books synced up) as one example?

The 11th trend that Charles mentions is that "libraries and publishers clashed." Of Amazon, he writes, "Irony alert: Although a significant percentage of these library downloads take place on Kindles, Amazon's proprietary publishing imprints refuse to sell e-books to public libraries."

What Charles does not mention is that the American Library Association is fighting with Amazon for refusing to make digital books from Amazon Publishing "available to libraries at any price or terms." In an October 2019 ALA report prepared for the U.S. House's Committee on the Judiciary on “Competition in Digital Markets,” the ALA claims Amazon is acting to widen the digital divide by keeping its ebooks out of libraries.

Perhaps we should not be too critical of a Washington Post book critic for failing to discuss the implications of Amazon's dominance of the digital book market.

How much are those of us in higher ed digging into the consequences of concentrated ownership in the production and dissemination of digital books?

What academic discipline is analyzing the combination of trends in publishing, technology and markets from a critical standpoint?

The role of digital books for authors, publishers, booksellers, libraries and readers seems like too big a topic for academic librarians to tackle alone. We should not expect that only academic librarians should lead the conversation in which the role of Amazon's monopoly position in digital books is brought into question.

A better approach may be for those of us outside of academic libraries to build scholarly bridges with academic librarians and the professional associations in which they operate.

I worry a great deal that we are moving toward a two-tiered system of reading. In the age of Amazon, those who can afford Kindle and Audible books enjoy a terrific digital reading experience. However, those without the disposable income to drop $25 on a Whispersync-enabled ebook/audiobook combination are left with no commensurate alternatives from public or academic libraries.

Ebooks and audiobooks have greatly improved the reading experience over the past decade for those who can afford to pay Amazon for Kindle and Audible digital books.

We have yet to figure out what the cost of Amazon's dominance of ebooks and audiobooks will be to the broader digital book ecosystem.

What do you think are the most important trends in books over the past decade?

Where would academic books, and publishers, fit into any list of book trends?

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