A gentleman named Ben Franklin launched an all-you-can-read service called the American library system. It costs the general public and consumers at present absolutely nothing every month and gives unlimited access to millions of titles. One single library in this system, for example, holds 34 million volumes, while others range from 19 million to merely 5 million.
Paid services such as Amazon only give access to a mere 600,000 volumes in pitiful contrast, and demand continuing fees per month from patrons. Various people have various ideas about all of this. My colleague Ursula Le Guin points us to her own experience with the Multonomah Library system, while others such as Anne Lamott mention artistic delivery systems. HuffPo rather sneeringly argued that Amazon wants you to pay $120 a year for a library ticket. Which is true but also what sparks this entirely serious and very pointed thought on public policy.
Let’s just close down the company Jeff Bezos founded, an “Amazon” river that has clearly strayed from its intent, and purpose. Instead, we could easily give all ownership over book production and dissemination to the public library system. Every citizen should have the power of an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription, but without paying for it. Why are we paying for books, when they are free in the libraries? I’ll use the numbers from my native US, even though I wasn’t born in this country, because I have personally benefited from the United States system and because I understand both the economics of libraries and the economics of Amazon intimately.
There are about 119,487 library locations (data here). This is direct contrast to Amazon, who has remarkably failed to establish any retail locations of note for dissemination of books, while incurring remarkable lack of profit for their shareholders (Amazon has lost money consistently throughout its history, with only recent small profits to show for its efforts). In fact, a remarkable amount of traffic to Amazon online properties directly relies on library access — 98.9% of libraries provide online access to Amazon’s database.
There are approximately 308 million US citizens, yet there are 1.2 billion visits to the public libraries in the United States every year (according to a 2006 study commissioned by the Gates Foundation) — no doubt the number of U.S. library visits has increased in the last 12 years. So if we calculate the cost of a library visit (against that 1.2 billion figure), against the cost of maintaining the library system, it averages out to $38.96 per person. Amazon, in the meantime, wants to charge $120 year for their “service” — without even providing a single physical location.
So which enterprise is more useful to the civic activity and well-being of the United States?
Each public library district only costs about $8M to maintain (data here). Most of this funding is through public funds contributed by bond issuance — which means typically that the local population actually votes to spend their own money to fund the local library. Meanwhile, Amazon is dealing with significant public outcry over rapacious business practices.
There’s several things leading me to this thought, over and above just trying to make a mischievous suggestion.
The first is that the public libraries have proven that they can administrate the selling and dissemination of books to the general public at a significant discount compared to Amazon. The actual cost of providing such a service is one fixed overhead (the original negotiations to launch the service, having the necessary infrastructure etc) and then a very small marginal payment to each author for each lend of a book. And clearly, the public libraries do this better than Amazon. Since the company cannot maintain a competitive edge with the public library system, why not just declare defeat, divest the shareholders of their profitless endeavor, and give all assets to an entity that clearly is better at this business? This is no different in principle from what the public library system is already doing.
We can also be sure that the library system would accept a very low price for a deal that covered the existing customers of Amazon. Those 1.2 billion library visits can easily be amortized across Amazon’s customers. It’s well known that most customers of Prime don’t actually use those benefits at all, and actually are paying for something useless to them. The book industry is worth nearly $113 billion — that’s bigger than the entire movie industry — yet Amazon can’t make a profit, which is sad and pifitful.
And there’s two more points. The first being that paid subscriptions is exactly how lending libraries started out. Both WH Smith’s and Boot’s used to run lending libraries. For a fee one had unlimited access to the stock of that profit making private sector enterprise. It was the specific attributes of books as physical objects in limited supply in any one location that led to councils (ie, the State) taking over library provision. Now that Amazon has had a fair trial at using modern technology, and has so clearly failed to meet the general public’s demand for reading, perhaps the need for an Amazon-style online system no longer exists? Clearly, Amazon hasn’t made a dent in the need for physical libraries with physical books, so perhaps there’s no need for Amazon whatsoever.
The second point is that Amazon has resisted the idea of contributing to the creative commons and the civic good — in fact, executives in the company even made a point of coming out against public funding of a common need, despite the fact that Amazon reaps great dividends in terms of public tax benefits from various municipalities. Clearly, this corporation doesn’t understand the way American capitalism works — you can’t suck from the public teat forever, and refuse to contribute! Laughable in the extreme!
Let’s consider this proposal seriously.
More titles, easier access and quite possibly a saving of public funds to Bezos and his ilk. Why wouldn’t we simply junk Amazon’s profitless enterprise and ensure that physical libraries receive all they need to provide all their long-term benefits to the entire country?
(Ned Hayes is a leading technologist, tech company executive and a published author)
(yes, I’m mocking the idiotic proposal by Tim Worstall that can be found here. Yes, he is a flaming idiot who has no sense of history, no sense of civic duty, and is probably a libertarian — my highest insult.)