DID AMAZON JUST CHANGE THE WORLD? Unlimited Kindle Books is a Game Changer (if they can license everything)

July 18, 2014, 8:51 pm

Amazon just announced an All-You-Can-Read service: Unlimited Kindle. It offers a collection of over 600,000 eBook titles for a low price of $9.99 per month. If this truly includes all Kindle books—it is a game changer.

book1Take this Elsevier title for example. It sells for $102. Under the new model I could access this and hundreds of similar high quality titles for just $10 per month.


book2Or textbooks. Why pay nearly $200 each when you can probably get all your books for the entire semester for just $30. (3 months of access)

I did some quick math and it would cost us about $300,000 per month to offer this service to our campus community. Or about $3.8 million annually—perhaps less depending on how summer enrollment is configured. Obviously Amazon will want to sell to individuals and not offer an institutional rate, but hypothetically that’s the ballpark.

It will be fascinating to see how publishers react to this. But can you imagine combining this with HathiTrust? You would have an amazing digital library of historical and current scholarly texts—instantly, anywhere, on any device.

There is a lot of uncertainty and excitement but I found myself simultaneously with two opposing thoughts. Let’s explore the concepts:

Thought #1: Deep Concern
I can see campus administrators (and Boards of Trustees) looking at this and asking—why do we need to continue investing so much in the library collection when we can pay Amazon? With schools (and States) focused on cost saving, I imagine the library becomes a tempting target. Amazon will get a lot of publicity from this service and the message that sticks will be “all the books in the world for the low price of $9.99.” Even if it’s not true — that’s the likely perception that will prevail.

Librarians need to be prepared to talk about this. I can imagine the defense that will arise:

  • Not everything will be available online.
  • It doesn’t include journals and other mediums.
  • It’s a propriety / closed format.
  • Do we really want one company controlling the distribution of knowledge?
  • What if they raise the price to $99.99 a month?
  • You are forced into a licensing deal—if you stop payment everything vanishes, instantly.
  • Authors and publishers will be forced to negotiate with Amazon, which won’t be in their best (financial) interests.
  • There is no guarantee about the long-term preservation of knowledge.
  • What happens when Amazon is surpassed by someone else?

There will be many passionate arguments made against this service and the business practices of Amazon. Librarians actually have a lot of issues with Amazon and it will be interesting to see how this all unfolds.

When I wear my administrator hat I have to admit that I am concerned. I could actually see this type of service supplanting general collections in academic libraries. If this type of model makes it easier for people to search, browse, access, and use materials — and is more efficient logistically as well as financially, then this definitely presents a threat to libraries as book provisioners.

It actually makes me feel a little sad. Deep down I know this is the future of “knowledge containers” but I didn’t think we would see this type of rapid progress (the all-you-can-read business model) so quickly. There is a quaintness to print that I will miss.

Thought #2: Extreme Optimism
When I switch to my “writer” hat I am absolutely thrilled with this service. I purchase about 25 Kindle books per year so I’ll save money and probably read more.

I currently have 83 print books checked out from my library collection and probably have 10 more via interlibrary loan. I would love to have all of these books in Kindle format because it would be easier for my workflow and portability. Not only is the new subscription model cheaper, but it might help make writing/reading more efficient for me. It would also encourage me to explore other titles that are currently cost or time prohibitive. For people who like to read or who get pulled into the serendipitous thrill of research—this is an amazing deal.

Beyond my personal usage I am also excited to see a new business model emerging. Amazon is going to cause a lot of disruption and that is something we need— particularly among scholarly publishers.

I have been waiting for an iTunes-like model to emerge and this could be it. Apple changed everything with music. Instead of purchasing an entire CD you can grab the song you want for a dollar. I read in a similar fashion and typically only need a few chapters or a chart/graphic/model/drawing or even just a few paragraphs. I just need the flavor of a book, not all 300 pages. Amazon Unlimited will potentially speed up the research process by offering easier access to microchunks. I imagine a similar model emerging for journals too. Why pay for an entire subscription when my community only needs a handful of articles (or pieces of articles) from a particular journal issue? And not for a ridiculous price of $45 per article.

I think a similar disruption will emerge for film and music. Pay a low monthly subscription fee and get unlimited access to lots of content. Netflix and Amazon Prime have the infrastructure to do this now  –  but the content isn’t there. I can’t get Citizen Kane or The Dark Knight via either of these services right now so they useless for my current needs this weekend. But this will change, eventually.

Another big idea is the theme of life-long learning. By providing affordable and instant access to a great collection—only good things can happen! We currently provide students with lots of databases and eBooks – but that vanishes once they graduate. With Amazon Unlimited they would have to absorb the cost but in the end isn’t one of our goals to promote and stimulate intellectual curiosity? We should want people to read, regardless of where they get the books

I’m not sure how the business model will work and it does’s seem good for authors, but I could see writers gaining a larger audience, especially long tail materials. I think my own book is cost prohibitive but I would rather have more people use it rather than just those who can afford it or those to who take the time to use ILL. I would personally be more inclined to explore many more books if they were one click (or tap) away and no extra charge. It’s an intellectual and cultural buffet!

Beyond content and usability I keep coming back to the price. You’re looking at $30-$40 per semester per person. That could be tacked on to tuition and fees. It’s built-in—a la cart reading materials, including textbooks.

NCSU Hunt Library

Lastly, it opens the door for libraries to evolve and to rethink spaces, services, and identity. I’ve mentioned  some of the language bubbling up from ARL about the move from knowledge services to knowledge partners. And Karen Williams’ shift from collection-centered to engagement-centered organizations — Kindle Unlimited type of services actually propels us in these new directions. We would be able to invest greater emphasis on the total knowledge/research/learning process. I’m not entirely sure what that actually looks like yet, but the future that I thought was decades away is now potentially right around the corner. There is definitely something exhilarating about having the opportunity to invent the future today.

It feels like we are on the verge of something big. Is it possible in five years to hear someone say “remember back in the day when people actually bought books?” Amazon just changed everything.

NOTE: just to be 100% clear, this concept is contingent on Amazon being able to offer ALL of its Kindle books via this service. Maybe they can’t right away, but eventually. iTunes worked because it offered a wide variety of major artists and cool indie bands — Amazon is going to have to provide access to major publishers, like Random House, Wiley, Springer, and Elsevier, and some university presses like MIT and UC in order for this to have any impact on academic libraries. I can see Unlimited creating an appetite (and expectation for everything) but we have to see if Amazon can actually deliver on the licensing.

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