In what came as a surprise to many librarians and industry observers, a report in The Hill this week revealed that the nonprofit Digital Public Library of America has been in discussions with Amazon Publishing on a potential a deal to make Amazon’s e-book content available in public libraries. And in a call with PW, DPLA officials confirmed that a deal could be done soon.
"I don’t want to get too far out over my skis," said Michele Kimpton, director of business development and senior strategist for the Digital Public Library of America, when asked to characterize how close a potential deal was to completion. Kimpton told PW that talks with Amazon have been ongoing since spring, adding that the discussions have gone well and that the parties were making "good progress.” And while she expressed hope that Amazon titles could be available to libraries on the DPLA Exchange sometime in early 2021, she also tempered expectations, stressing there were still details to be worked out.
Such an agreement would be a major breakthrough in the library e-book market. Amazon currently does not make its digital content available to libraries under any terms—an exclusion that librarians have loudly criticized for years, and brought to the attention of lawmakers in an ALA report last year. In fact, an Amazon spokesperson revealed news of the potential deal with DPLA this week after The Hill contacted the company regarding a petition launched this month to urge Congress to pursue “an antitrust investigation and legislative action to preserve and expand library services.” The petition, created by digital advocacy group Fight for the Future, has garnered nearly 13,000 signatures so far.
In a statement provided to PW, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed that Amazon Publishing is "in active discussions" with the Digital Public Library of America and that the company expects to begin "testing a number of different models" in early 2021. "We believe libraries serve a critical purpose in communities across the country, and our priority is to make Amazon Publishing e-books available in a way that ensures a viable model for authors, as well as library patrons."
Speaking with PW this week, Kimpton further clarified the scope of the potential agreement. First and foremost, the discussion covers Amazon Publishing titles only (not titles from Amazon’s KDP program). The current talks also do not include Audible, Amazon's digital audio service, which does not make its exclusive content available to libraries. And while Amazon is heavily invested in a subscription model for books and reading (Audible, Kindle Unlimited) a subscription model for libraries has not been part of the talks. All titles under the potential deal would be licensed ePub editions managed by the DPLA and its partner libraries and made accessible to patrons via the SimplyE app (a free, open source library e-reader app developed by the New York Public Library)—meaning library users would not have to go through Amazon to access the titles.
If completed, a deal would be a major coup for SimplyE and the Digital Public Library of America’s growing e-book platform, the DPLA Exchange. After all, to license Amazon Publishing titles libraries would need to use the DPLA exchange, and patrons would need to deploy the SimplyE app to access them. Meanwhile, commercial vendors in the library e-book market contacted by PW declined to comment on the development, or whether they too were in talks with Amazon.
Kimpton acknowledged that landing Amazon would be a major boost for the DPLA’s developing e-book service, but suggested the potential deal was not being designed to function as some kind of exclusive.
“Yes, it is a big deal,” Kimpton told PW. “I’m really happy DPLA can be a thought leader here, that we can be agile, and that we can really best represent libraries. I’m fully and squarely behind SimplyE, because it is the only library-managed library e-book platform, so I think it’s a great thing for SimplyE. But at the end of the day, if these [Amazon] titles are available on all the major platforms, that’s a good thing for libraries as well.”
The DPLA Exchange currently offers about 500,000 digital titles to libraries, which are accessible via the SimplyE app. Since its launch in 2017, DPLA has entered into agreements with some 60 publishers, including some titles from the Big Five.
DPLA has also been instrumental in exploring ways to make more digital content available under a range of new licensing models. Over the past year, DPLA has struck deals with a number of publishers (including Workman, Abrams, and Independent Publishers Group, for example) to offer three new licensing models, including a 40-lend bundle that would allow up to 10 concurrent users; an unlimited one-at-a-time model, and a model that would allow five concurrent loans at a reduced price. Crucially, all of these models would be available simultaneously—giving librarians what they have long said they need most in the digital market: flexibility that allows them to more efficiently manage their digital resources.
“We have been doing a lot of work around new licensing models that provide libraries with choice and provide patrons more reading material,” Kimpton says. “We have to get away from this process of hold queue after hold queue for e-books. We hope libraries will embrace these models, and we hope we can keep exploring new ways to get more books in the hands of patrons and off of this holds queue model, which is a waste of taxpayer dollars and a waste of library resources because too much work goes into managing [digital lends] rather than doing what librarians do best, which is create collections and develop relationships with their communities to promote reading.”
While some details remain to be ironed out, Kimpton said Amazon was on board with offering multiple licensing models. And while she declined to characterize Amazon’s broader approach to the digital library market, she stressed that as a library-based and library-centric nonprofit, any deal DPLA struck, with Amazon or any publisher, would necessarily align with core library values, including equitable access, and patron privacy.
Some observers, meanwhile, will no doubt question whether working with DPLA may be a clever way for Amazon to counter criticism over its refusal to work with libraries thus far without getting in too deep—after all, a small fraction of libraries are currently on the DPLA exchange, and SimplyE is still in its relatively early days in terms of its uptake. But Kimpton told PW the current talks with Amazon are in fact a good faith effort.
“You know, I can’t speak for Amazon but what I can tell you is that the people I’ve been working with at Amazon are passionate about libraries and authors,” Kimpton offered. “That’s why we're in this exploration together.”
This article was updated for clarity regarding the SimplyE app, and to remove a reference to Kindle Unlimited.