Congress Looking into Anticompetitive Behavior in the Digital Library Market

From Publishers Weekly:

The American Library Association (ALA) has delivered a written report to the House Judiciary Committee telling lawmakers that “unfair behavior by digital market actors,” including Amazon and some major publishers, is “doing concrete harm to libraries.”

The report, delivered last week to a House antitrust subcommittee investigating competition in the digital market, comes as lawmakers are taking note of the growing backlash to Big Five publisher Macmillan’s decision to impose a two-month embargo on new release e-books in public libraries.

. . . .

The ALA comments break down what it sees as potentially “anticompetitive” behavior in the digital realm into two sectors—public and school libraries, and academic and research libraries. And no surprise, the two issues topping the list of ALA’s concerns: Amazon’s exclusive digital content, which is not available to libraries; and restrictions by the major publishers in the library e-book market.

“The worst obstacle for libraries are marketplace bans: refusal to sell services at any price,” ALA officials notes, pointing to Amazon Publishing. “The e-book titles from Amazon Publishing are not available to libraries for lending at any price or any terms. By contrast, consumers may purchase all of these titles directly from Amazon. This is a particularly pernicious new form of the digital divide; Amazon Publishing books are available only to people who can afford to buy them, without the library alternative previously available to generations of Americans.”

. . . .

A “related problem,” ALA asserts—though it is surely the primary problem libraries face on a day-to-day basis—is the increasingly restrictive, and costly market for e-books from the major publishers. This includes the “delayed release” of e-books to the library market, the ALA report states, pointing to Macmillan’s two-month embargo on new release e-book titles, scheduled to take effect on November 1, and “abusive” pricing for library e-books, where titles can often run more than four times the consumer price for two year licenses.

“Denying or delaying new content to libraries certainly is a market failure,” ALA states. “It also prevents libraries from accomplishing their democratizing mission of providing equal access to information to American citizens.”

. . . .

The inquiry comes after the House Judiciary Committee launched its investigation into competition in the digital market on June 3, 2019, with Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) citing “growing evidence that a handful of gatekeepers have come to capture control over key arteries of online commerce, content, and communications.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

12 thoughts on “Congress Looking into Anticompetitive Behavior in the Digital Library Market”

  1. You know, I support libraries, and I use them extensively, but the argument here – “You have to sell us your stuff, and cheap too, so we can give it away because that’s what we’re all about” — is sort of hard to defend on a free market basis.

    • I sympathize with their goals but since they were tbe ones that told Overdrive to ghettoize Indies I have to wonder if tbey even asked APub to license their books or did they sit back expecting APub to come to them?

      At least some of their problems with tradpub stem by their adherence to dated practices and unwillingness to actually act to vote their wallets. They gripe a lot about BPH abuse but end upjust bosing submissively. Little wonder they just keep ratcheting up prices and restrictions.

      They need to learn to exercise the power of NO!

      • It may be a bit of a surprise that someone doesn’t care if their books are in libraries. Could be some backward company that doesn’t understand the digital world and the power of recommendations from library patrons.

  2. I am warming to the opinion that libraries should be returned to their original means of acquisition – copies that are purchased at full retail price. After which, of course, the doctrine of first purchaser applies; they can do whatever they want with it.

    Ebooks, and software in general, should be brought in line with other commercial goods – if you purchase a copy, you own that copy, and can do whatever you want with it (other than reproduce it and distribute those copies).

    • “This is a particularly pernicious new form of the digital divide; Amazon Publishing books are available only to people who can afford to buy them, without the library alternative previously available to generations of Americans.””

      My mission is a new Porsche. This is a particularly pernicious form of the automotive divide; Porsche cars are available only to people who can afford to buy them.

        • But they can’t. Most public libraries are arms of state governments, and there are severe restrictions on interstate commercial compacts (both constitutional and statutory). That is, except in actual litigation New York, Texas, and Ohio (just three states, not particularly those) cannot join together to create a joint purchasing system or agreement.

          Trust me on this: If there weren’t such strong barriers, the states would have done so in the early 1990s when the then-existing distribution system for books and periodicals imploded.

          • I’m no fan of federalizing everything but libraries might lobby the DOE to step in there. That’s one way DOE might actually do some good.

  3. I hope they’re considering the number of free and 99 cent ebooks available on Amazon all the time, including permafree, temporarily price-matched for sales, and part of Kindle Select promotions.

      • “Amazon Publishing books are available only to people who can afford to buy them, without the library alternative previously available to generations of Americans.”

        I was trying to point out that there were other free alternatives for those who can’t afford to buy books.

        I’m not in favor of Amazon exclusivity precluding books being in library distribution. When I first started publishing, I emailed Amazon to make sure I was reading this right because I wanted the opportunity of having readers borrow my books from the library.

        But it’s not as if poor people will have nothing to read if Amazon doesn’t allow it.

        • Fair.
          Just checking.
          Some people on the tradpub side FUD and badmouth the heck out of sale and promo ebooks. And indie ebooks in general.

          On the OP side I don’t see much real danger for Amazon. Mostly be ause Kindle exclusivity is just an *optional* second tier to KDP.

          Now, if Amazon made kindle access exclusive-only they would’ve been called to court long ago. Definitely a no-no. But Select evolving into KU is defensible and as long as their promo campaigns aren’t limited *solely* to exclusive titles they’re legally clean. (I’ve seen complaints about promos being heavily APub and Select based but not solely for those. I could be wrong but…)

          As for Libraries, Amazon teaming up with overdrive to allow library books on Kindle insulates them from serious claims on that side.

          Their lawyers seem to be pretty good on where the do-not-cross lines lie.

          That said, there is a loophole around kindle access: it is tied to specific editions.

          BAEN uses it to maintain two editions of books on Kindle and on their free library. Mostly it is on older, initial books in a series, where they do honest (but rrally minor) revisions and release a second edition. The first edition stays on the Free Library while the revised edition goes to Kindle and (optionally) other channels.

          This is something that authors with reverted titles could exploit. Update them for one channel and send the original through others.

          (Diane Duane did something similar: she has two versions of her Young Wizards series, the original with 80’s computer tech and an updated version with post Internet tech. This allows her to selfpub the latter version Internationally withput violating her tradpub contract, if I recall correctly.)

          In general Amazon rules fall among two lines: they don’t like free books or being underpriced and they reserve some *added* perks for Select. Their platform, their rules.

          In general, the BPHs look to have more to fear on the library front from the IdiotPoliticians™ than Amazon.

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