Amazon Withholds Its E-Books from Public Libraries: Who Remembers Andrew Carnegie?

April 16, 2021

This was not what the Internet was supposed to bring—quite the opposite. We learn of a growing problem from The Washington Post in their article, “Want to Borrow That E-Book from the Library? Sorry, Amazon Won’t Let You.” Tech giant Amazon has never forgotten it began with books and has now grown into a powerful publisher as well as book vendor. However, the company’s obsession with its bottom line is posing a real problem for society—it is refusing to sell its digital titles to public libraries. Reporter Geoffrey A. Fowler writes:

“[Amazon] won’t sell downloadable versions of its more than 10,000 e-books or tens of thousands of audiobooks to libraries. That’s right, for a decade, the company that killed bookstores has been starving the reading institution that cares for kids, the needy and the curious. And that’s turned into a mission-critical problem during a pandemic that cut off physical access to libraries and left a lot of people unable to afford books on their own. Many Americans now recognize that a few tech companies increasingly dominate our lives. But it’s sometimes hard to put your finger on exactly why that’s a problem. The case of the vanishing e-books shows how tech monopolies hurt us not just as consumers, but as citizens.”

For decades lawmakers have evaluated the harm monopolies cause by asking one simple question—are prices going up? In the case of tech firms like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, their large-scale operations often mean the answer is no. But that metric misses a lot of factors. Fowler notes:

“But we’re not just price-sensitive consumers — we’re also citizens. We need products that are made fairly, serve our needs and are equitably distributed. Groundbreaking government antitrust lawsuits filed in late 2020 argue Google’s monopoly hurts us because it’s blocking competitors and prioritizing its own inferior services. In my own investigation, I found Google search results are getting worse as it puts its own business ahead of our interests. Libraries losing e-books matters because they serve us as citizens.”

Yes, libraries are critical to maintaining an informed public even in the digital age. As with physical books, most publishers happily sell libraries e-book versions of their works. In fact, libraries typically pay more for each publication than an end consumer would. That apparently is not enough for Amazon. Why spare even one potential sale for the greater good?

The American Library Association testified to Congress on the matter, calling digital sales bans “the worst obstacle for libraries.” Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island have proposed bills that would force Amazon and other publishers to sell their e-books on reasonable terms. We will see whether any of these or similar bills make it into law. Meanwhile, authors who want to see their books on libraries’ virtual shelves should turn to other publishers.

Cynthia Murrell, April 16, 2021


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