Amazon, Audible, and the Need for Educators to Unite

Every time that I fork over $229.50 to renew my Platinum membership plan at Audible (an Amazon company) I like to mark the occasion and think some about the meaning of this purchase.

June 4, 2012

Every time that I fork over $229.50 to renew my Platinum membership plan at Audible (an Amazon company) I like to mark the occasion and think some about the meaning of this purchase.

Any other Platinum Audible subscribers out there?   

The deal is that I give Amazon $229.50 of my money now, and they give me 24 credits that can be redeemed (within 1 year) for 24 audio books. That comes out to about $9.56 a book. Amazon makes money on this deal all sorts of ways.  First, they have my money up front and can do whatever they want with it.  Second, I'm betting that a fairly high proportion of credits are never redeemed (as they expire), meaning that Amazon would keep the money as pure profit.  I would also think that anyone willing to shell out $229.50 for books (and they know the books I buy) would represent a fat target to market other book related and digital services to.  Even if Amazon never sold my (aggregated and anonymized) data, I'm hoping that Amazon algorithms are cooking up other delectable content for me to purchase within the Amazon universe.

Every time that I shell out my $229.50 for 24 audiobooks I recognize what a privileged thing this is to do. $229.50 on the credit card for audiobooks is an indulgence and a luxury. This is a sum that for most of my adult life that I could not have managed, and I am grateful for the ability to splurge on these audiobooks today.  Certainly when I was a kid this would have been out of my parents reach, and audiobooks in college or graduate school (or as a young sociology professor) would not have been a financial option. (Audiobooks without the subscription are even more expensive, with a la carte audiobooks easily costing $25 or more).

And each time I pay my $229.50 for 24 audiobooks I think about how, by and large, listening to books is restricted to people with enough money to pay these sums. Audiobook options from public and college libraries are not altogether absent, but they are severely circumscribed. In New Hampshire, the state in which I live, it is possible to download audiobooks from the NH Downloadable Books Consortium.  This service is through Overdrive, and while I'm grateful for its existence the selection of books is so small (and new books so often already checked out) that I seldom borrow books from this source. The institution that I work at also has an audiobook program, and I am grateful for the careful choice of the selections available.  

In my experience no library audiobook service, from either college or public libraries, offers anywhere near the selection of Audible.com. For the most part, if an audio edition exists of a book then Audible will have it. Since the audiobook is purchased rather than borrowed from Audible it will always be available, as long as the buyer has the credits (or the money) to spend. Library audiobooks in contrast have limited selection and queues to borrow what is in the catalogue.

There are many reasons for the discrepancy in the private market for audiobooks vs. the public service available via libraries. To Amazon's great shame they no longer have an Audible program for libraries. Publishers and aggregators charge very high prices to gain the privilege of lending out audiobooks, to my knowledge these audiobooks are far more expensive than paper copies.  Librarians have no good options to make audiobooks available to their patrons. Efforts to start college library audiobook programs or to work at a consortium (consortial?) level are no doubt heroic.

Our collective decision to consign the availability of audiobooks to the market has, I believe, real consequences for learning and education. I have seen with my own daughters that the availability of an audiobook option encourages reading, increases books read, and I think improves retention.  My kids are able to take advantage of my Audible Platinum membership to download audio versions of the books they are reading for school, often getting both the paper and digital audio version and switching back and forth between the two.   

I have a hard time believing that an audiobook option would not benefit other learners, at every level of schooling. I've often wondered if it would be possible to assign more course reading, and expect that this reading would get done, if the the books could be delivered in multiple formats (paper, e-books, and audio). Do we have any idea about the number of learners that, do to their vision or cognitive makeup or learning style preferences, would benefit greatly from an audio option?

It seems to me that us educators, us librarians and professors and administrators, need to find a way to come together within and across our institutions to push for a solution to the audiobook (and e-book) private vs. library content divide.  

We need to find a way to stand together to put pressure on Amazon (is there another player to engage with?) to bring a library program to Audible. We need to convince Amazon that the long term gains for creating lifelong readers will dwarf any short term costs for creating library programs.  We need to collect and show the data that audiobook readers are book buyers.  We need to convince Amazon that it is in their interest to work with libraries (both academic and public) as the positive press of doing so would far outweigh the negative press that a concerted organizing effort could bring.

How do we organize our Amazon Audible library audiobook lobbying effort?

Is there anyone at Audible or Amazon who is available to engage with our InsideHigherEd community on this issue?


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