Four Lessons Libraries Can Learn From Amazon

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

It is hard for my view of the world not to be informed by the two years I spent working in senior management at Amazon. I am not a librarian, but I have spent the past 15 years working with libraries in some capacity and the past four working with them very closely. Right now the digital user experience in the library world frustrates people into the arms of retailers.

When you look at the gap between consumer adoption of ebooks and library adoption of ebooks you cannot simply blame libraries for being bad at spreading the word about their digital offerings. The problem is much deeper. According to recent studies, the library ebook user-experience has about a tenth of the market penetration as consumer ebooks and has an alarming 80% attrition rate (meaning people who have an ebook lending account with their library but do not use it).

Amazon understands how to make customers happy and can be a phenomenal teacher to those who pay attention. Many in the publishing industry love to hate Amazon professionally, but we know Amazon is amazing at what it does. With that in mind, here are four lessons libraries should take from Amazon.


Lesson 1: In the modern world user experience is marketing

When I worked at Amazon, we called marketing “free shipping.” That is, we understood that it is impossible to successfully market a bad user experience. The modern world is about word of mouth (physically or via social media) and user experience. Libraries have neither on their side.

“Hey, did you hear Amazon will ship your stuff for free?!”

How many “did you hear…” moments have you heard about your local library in the past five years ten years? Library vendor technologies have struggled to keep up with the state of the art for business models and technology platforms required to drive adoption of ebooks and digital library usage.

Consumer adoption of tablets has amplified a patron’s expectations. The experience bar for libraries is no longer set by library vendors but by companies like Amazon, Apple, Evernote, Flipboard, Netflix, HBO, etc.

The platforms and operating systems that drive the universe of customer experience change very quickly. To excel, you have to work very fast to keep up. Historically this is not how library vendors have executed on behalf of libraries. To keep pace with the consumer world is hard.

None of the apps I use every day were marketed to me. All of them came from either an acute need:

“I need to tune my guitar and I don’t have a tuner, I wonder if there is an app…”

Or word of mouth:

“Have you tried Uber?”

Give patrons a fantastic digital patron experience that has real value relative to other things they do digitally in their day-to-day life and the marketing will take care of itself. There is a ton of predisposition to love libraries. Imagine if libraries gave people a digital user-experience they could also love.


Lesson 2: “Experimenting with business models” should start with the patrons

I was on a panel last year with a group of ebook people involved in the library world. One person from a large publishing company positioned their “experimentation with ebook models” as exemplary and claimed that they were “moving in the right direction” in their relationship with libraries.

Basically, they were conducting two experiments:

Model A: Marking books up substantially from their list price and letting libraries lend them one-at-a-time to patrons, which confuses patrons who do not understand how digital objects are not available for immediate consumption.

Model B: Marking the ebooks up less, but then forcing the library to buy another copy after a certain number of checkouts.

He let the libraries know that were moving slowly and analyzing the data. They had not decided which was best for them. Any sense of urgency to solve the library problem of delivering a frustrating patron experience was absent in the delivery.

I am a big fan of experimentation. So is Amazon.

The content of the “experiment” described above is not how Amazon thinks. When Amazon talks about experimentation it is trying to deliver something faster, lower the price of something or make someone happier to spend money. Self-interested supplier experiments trade real patron good will for the illusion of what a patron wants.

Libraries have never had an ebook system they can truly promote without fear of success. More usage means longer wait lists and more technical support. If the library uses PDA (Patron Driven Acquisition), they have to hope their usage is not so high as to deplete their budgets too quickly. Neither is motivating. Experiments should be focused on how to solve this problem in way where both publishers and libraries win by focusing on patrons.


Lesson 3: Vote with your dollars, time and energy 

Amazon never spends money, time or energy with a vendor who is not helping them achieve their objectives — fast enough, that is. That last part — the fast enough part — is key. Most problems can be solved in enough time. The world is changing fast.

Amazon is now making Sunday deliveries, same day deliveries of groceries, and is rumored to be trying to build its own delivery fleet. We have all seen the Amazon drones right? Why? Because even though UPS can do a lot for Amazon, USA isn’t motivated to embrace Amazon’s vision of the world fast enough.

This is a major undertaking, but here is what I know is happening: A lot of smart people are working with a sense of urgency to make it happen. So do not be shocked when the Amazon truck pulls up to your house in a few years (maybe sooner) even if you don’t live in a major market. The drones may take a little longer.

Library business models are not born in academic papers or in committees. They are born when libraries shift their buying dollars from old broken models (although some would argue that current ebook lending models are not old, few would argue they aren’t broken), to models that work for them.


Lesson 4: Be in the best-seller business at your own peril

Of course Amazon is in the best-seller business, but many of its best-sellers are thought to be loss leaders. Amazon makes money by providing comprehensive selection and access to the “long tail.” A popular quip about the long tail is that the media business used to be about dozens of things selling millions of copies; now it’s about millions of things selling dozens of copies. This is the world we live in and libraries have to deliver on this new paradigm.

Library directors looking to drive good optics on patron usage are well-served buying best-sellers and making them available quickly (leading at least one public library to buy $23,000 in electronic copies of 50 Shades of Grey). But should libraries really be in the best-seller business?

Today, libraries spend lots of money to deliver a sub-standard ebook experience. No matter how many copies of a single-user ebook they buy, they cannot make it available comprehensively to their entire patron bases or come close to meeting their communitys’ peak demand.

This approach may drive library usage in a raw sense but in a world of finite resources it seems shortsighted. It creates a situation where a small base of power users drive usage on a small number of expensive ebooks, while millions of ebooks become inaccessible though the library at all because of the exhausted acquisitions budget. And when demand for a former best-seller lessens, the library has lots of extra digital copies lying around that it can’t even sell or give away.

Netflix has millions of users and is incredibly intuitive and engaging. There is no expectation that Netflix will have the latest content. Indeed, it is only after movies and shows have exhausted their prime consumer business potential do they become available to subscribers. But the service is still of very high value.

Amazon (like Netflix) understands that comprehensive selection and elegance are the keys to user engagement and digital asset usage. Libraries should emulate what works in the consumer world. Patron Driven Acquisition is a step in the right direction, but does not fully solve the issue because no library budget can sustain full-engagement with this model. Despite being better than buying ebooks for which there is no demand, it still collapses from its own success when either publishers raise prices (as is happening with ebook lending now) or demand increases by giving patrons the ebooks they want.


Into the Future

The good news is that there are library organizations out there that believe they need to provide patrons a consumer grade experience to maintain patron engagement and their projects are taking off. The Massachusetts Library System (MLS) launched an ambitious project to improve user-experience, as have library systems in North Carolina (NC Live) and Arizona (Arizona Reads).

These library organizations considered how to provide a consumer experience to their patrons and the prevailing thinking was the then-popular Douglas County Library (DCL) model. In this model, libraries took control of their own content licensing and distribution with the notion they could get better deals from publishers by going direct, but with the same approach as the major vendors (one book, one user, turn-aways, etc.).

Since there is no appreciable improvement in user experience with this approach, the only difference in the DCL model is that all the work of keeping the software systems and infrastructure current and robust, instead of being done by the vendor, now is the responsibility of the library.

The feeling of control from owning your own ebook content is what made the DCL model resonate with libraries, and that makes sense considering the models that preceded it. But at the end of the day, DCL model organizations are licensing servers and software from Adobe (a third party software company) and strapping themselves with a ton of work for a long time.

Other states are paying attention and preparing their own RFP’s and seeking funding for statewide projects that focus on user-experience. Even if the state does not have the funding to buy all the content for their libraries, they are deciding they can at least take accountability for ebook user experience within the state.

There is a ton of work to do, but there is a feeling of optimism that is palpable among libraries. Listen to BiblioBoard’s CEO Andrew Roskill talk about this issue at a TEDx conference (disclosure: I am employed by BiblioBoard).



6 thoughts on “Four Lessons Libraries Can Learn From Amazon

  1. Michael W. Perry

    There’s a lack of imagination all around. Book checkouts from libraries should look into a Model C:

    * Make every ebook possible available to every interested library. Make the market every public and school library in the country.

    * Allow unlimited copies to be checked out at the same time. Why artificially limit checkouts when duplication is so easy?

    * Charge per-checkout fees not purchase fees. Make money on persuading the public to read a book rather than persuading libraries to buy it. That makes backlists far more valuable.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride, a young adult novel set in 1870s North Carolina available through Library Direct (now) and Overdrive (soon)

    1. Sarah

      While I’m not saying that there isn’t more that libraries could do, publishers are a major reason that ebooks aren’t more prevalent in libraries. Publishers have pretty strict rules about how ebooks can be used, typically only 1 or 2 users at a time can borrow an ebook. So the “artificial checkout limits” are set by publishers NOT libraries. Additionally publishers set it so that after an ebook is borrowed somewhere between 20-50 times the library has to repurchase the ebook, which is ridiculous since regular books can be lent hundreds of times before needing to be replaced, making the costs of providing ebooks prohibitive in a lot of cases.

      1. Mitchell Davis

        You are correct. If I did not make it clear in the article, beyond the technology issues publisher business rules that create artificial scarcity contribute greatly to the current state of affairs. We see a lot of progress in the thinking of the publishers we are talking to today so that is changing.

  2. Bob

    Did you read the article? I don’t see any lack of imagination there. The lack of imagination is with entrenched library vendors and the libraries that buy from them. The article admonishes the libraries to think differently.

  3. Yoav Lorch

    Thanks, Michael. Excellent observations.
    Total Boox, the company I am part of, offers more or less the experience you described, or somewhat better.
    The Total Boox experience for library patrons includes:
    All titles always available to all patrons for immediate downloading and reading.
    No holds, no limitations, no expirations.
    Any patron can download as many books as they wish; books stay on the devices indefinitely, and can be read online and offline. And yes, downloading a books is a single click, no questions asked.
    Could there be a better user experience ?

    The libraries pay only for the portions their patrons actually read, with no annual fees, and no need to buy books upfront.

    The ebook experience for patrons should be superior to the retail ebook experience, since it doesn’t have to deal with the financial interaction. Setting our standards according to quality retail ebook experiences is setting them too low.

  4. Mitchell Davis

    I have an appreciation for the model you guys are promoting. It is definitely a more enlightened approach to getting books to patrons. However, I think it can collapse under it’s own success. If libraries had unlimited budgets it would be great, but I think any pay as you go model has to hope for success, but not too much success. That is a difficult proposition to manage over the long term.

    Libraries are also starting from a dis-advantaged position in terms of current patron e-book usage. The business model has to work for the publishers and generate enough income to keep them interested.

    Of course libraries also do a lot more than serve up books so the technology platform needs to also deliver their historical databases, their own licensed e-books, audio, video, etc. and do all this in one unified user experience. In our opinion the platform also needs to let them publish their own archives, local authors and professors and give publishing tools to their patrons to support maker spaces, etc.

    I saw you present at Digital Minds last year and it would be great to connect sometime.



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