With the launch of Kindle Unlimited (KU), Amazon’s subscription service, consumer-oriented e-book subscription services are beginning to look like a coming thing. Of course, it is still early days, and comparisons of the three most prominent e-book subscription services—KU, Scribd, and Oyster—show that they still have a ways to go. Nevertheless, Amazon’s foray into e-book subscription, and the media attention it has generated, amounts to an endorsement of subscription access as a new market category for e-books.

What the exponents of subscription apparently do not endorse, however, is the long-term survival of libraries. Both inside and outside the library sector, there has been significant hand-wringing about the potential impact on libraries as digital books, like all media consumption, increasingly moves to the network.

A recent piece from Inside Higher Ed by Gustavus Adolphus College librarian Barbara Fister summarized the general reaction to Amazon’s entry into the subscription business. “Kindle Unlimited, like so many this-will-change-the-world announcements from tech corporations, is lots of huff and puff,” she concludes. “It won’t blow our house down.”

But in an ALA blog post, former Douglas County (Colo.) library director James LaRue, who serves on the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG), asserts that Amazon’s program is a shot across the library’s bow—if consumer subscription services continue to improve and gain traction, how will libraries fare given their position as “lenders” of books in their communities?

“It’s hard not to see the announcement of the new Kindle Unlimited Service as a significant challenge to libraries,” LaRue writes. Despite its current lack of frontlist titles and little content from the Big Five publishers, LaRue suggests that the product will improve, and that the convenience of Amazon’s service will likely entice many readers to “jump the library ship.”

The Question

Personally, I am more sanguine about the ability of libraries to weather the advent of e-book subscription services, although my response is partly couched in weathered cynicism. Libraries are already denied the ability to assert themselves in the totality of the e-book marketplace. They are unable to buy a lot of self-published and independently published e-books. Also, library access is limited, and the user experience frustrating, from long waits on hold lists to cumbersome borrowing processes. But the overwhelming majority of public libraries now support e-book lending, and are universally reporting robust activity. That tells me that libraries have a strong and loyal user population.

As I see it, the potential impact of upstart subscription services leads to a larger question for libraries. As Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive puts it: “E-books could go the way of either movies, or music. Which will we pick for ourselves?”

The comparison is far from perfect. Books have features that they do not share with movies or music. But the core question is nevertheless critical—digital access to movies has been almost entirely privatized. Streaming movie access is dominated by Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple iTunes, and libraries have almost no ability to provide their communities with free, streaming current movies.

In contrast, music was largely disrupted by Napster at the turn of the millennium, and now there is a range of options available to music consumers, including services like Pandora and Spotify. And libraries have vendors that offer access to music catalogues.

Many commentators have more readily aligned books with movies in light of their consumption patterns. After all, watching a feature film requires a greater time commitment than listening to music, which can be enjoyed in short snatches. Reading a book usually requires even more time and attention than watching a standard-length movie. However, a book’s consumption can be broken up temporally, and my sense is that people are beginning to read digitally much as they consume music. Although I can tender only a mix of impressions and Pew survey results, it seems to me that more readers are consuming books while commuting, standing in checkout lines, or sitting in waiting rooms, for example. And, as with cloud-based music libraries, there is great value to digital readers in having a readily accessible digital library of considerable size.

This notion—that everyone will value having a library of at least some minimal size—gets at the potential impact subscription models might have on readers. After all, immediate access to all the world’s literature, both past and present, for only a modest monthly fee, on any compatible device, represents the very promise of these new e-book subscription services, does it not?

First Movers

So far, publishers and authors are understandably wary of the financial sustainability of subscription models. But it is telling that the early results have not seen the first entrants, such as HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, fleeing in pecuniary distress. Meanwhile, librarians, as Fister wryly notes, have already delivered on the promise of ubiquitous access to the world’s print literature through interlibrary loan arrangements with national (and often international) consortia. Unfortunately, so far, libraries have not been able to extend the promise of interlibrary loan to digital books. But there’s no reason they couldn’t.

At a time when publishers are locked in hostile negotiations with a dominant Amazon, the emergence of e-book subscription services presents an opportunity to forge a new path by creating a wholly new model of e-book access. Why couldn’t a national digital library system purchase or license access to a comprehensive catalogue of e-books and then make that catalogue available by vending and managing access as an intermediary subscription provider, whether to patrons directly or to public libraries across the country?

In this vision, publishers could sell access to their digital-book catalogues to a few central library platforms, such as the Internet Archive’s Open Library and the Digital Public Library of America, or to major public library systems with significant planning and management resources, such as the New York Public Library and California’s Califa consortium. Patrons whose public library obtained access to this comprehensive catalogue would be able to read books with limited constraints, modeled on the current for-profit services.

Such an arrangement offers significant benefits for everyone. For readers, a library-based platform would protect the privacy of individual users. Conceivably, patrons could also be asked to pay a small fee to gain access to frontlist titles upon their release, a kind of surcharge for “premium” library users, generating additional revenue. Publishers and distributors for self-published and independently authored books could also participate and obtain income from subscription revenue. And publishers could provide content under a perpetual license agreement, so that mergers or business failures would no longer translate into the potential loss of literature to the world.

If the commercial market is going move toward subscription e-book access, it makes sense to include libraries in that conversation. After all, libraries and publishers are deeply committed to the same enterprise of reading, and are both invested in a sustainable reading and publishing culture. For libraries, books are not loss leaders.

As with the current commercial models, there are many details to hash out. But, at the very least, enabling libraries to work with publishers to create a new, independent market for digital reading would liberate readers, authors, and publishers from the most iniquitous aspects of Amazon’s digital-reading hegemony. That alone should be attractive enough to merit evaluation.