Image description: a Twitter-sized rectangular image that reads “The digital book revolution is not the paragon of accessibility that has been advertised” with a graphic of falling books above the text and the URL WhoCanGetYourBook.com below.
Fight for the Future has built a new tool to highlight the inequities in the digital publishing revolution. Public libraries, public schools, independent booksellers, as well as disabled, rural, and low income readers are being cut out of the US’s digital future.
The digital book revolution is not the paragon of accessibility that has been advertised. Fight for the Future’s new tool highlights how predatory digital book distribution is increasing digital inequity while harming core institutions like public libraries, public schools, and independent booksellers.
WhoCanGetYourBook.com offers letter grades in accessibility and availability for books, laying bare prohibitive licensing costs, exclusive deals such as Amazon’s Audible Originals, and usability concerns that are keeping popular books out of the hands of our nation’s most-vulnerable readers.
“With the rise of ebooks and audiobooks, barriers that prevented blind people like myself from gaining equitable access to books could be a thing of the past,” said Sina Bahram (he/him), President of Prime Access Consulting, Inc. “Instead, the education, research, and enjoyment of disabled people are all caught in the crossfire of publishing profits. I hope that this project will prompt authors and publishers to center people with reading differences as well as people with income and transportation barriers. Disabled readers must be included in publishing’s digital revolution.”
The ‘Who can get your book?’ quiz offers authors and publishers a letter grade, granting one point for each equitable decision in how a book is released. For example, Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime receives a letter grade of D, based on the memoir’s lack of availability in audiobook format due to an exclusive with Amazon’s Audible—as well as restrictive licensing agreements for the ebook.
Access issues with audiobooks in particular don’t stop there. Despite an orientation to equity of access and rare download-and-own options for ebooks, PM Press’ Pictures Of A Gone City still received a C grade because the audiobook they paid to produce via Amazon’s ACX Services is only available on Audible.
“This current forced reality is almost completely inimical to everything we aspire to do with the dissemination of ideas, and our belief that ideas actually matter,” said Ramsey Kanaan (he/him), Publisher, PM Press. “Amazon indeed has a complete monopoly. They are the only—at this particular moment—realistic model both for the creation and dissemination of independent audiobooks. And, they are affordable only because they force all of the creative labor back on us. Then, to ensure total market share, Amazon demands an audiobook exclusive. And hence they dictate how and where such products are made available, and at what price. Our problems with audiobooks via Amazon are a microcosm of the wider problematics and tensions of disseminating ideas (any ideas) in publishing’s so-called marketplace. It is very analogous to the landlord/renter relationship, where the former has all the power, can dictate all of the terms, and if you don’t want to ‘play’ by such ‘rules’, one is free to become unhoused elsewhere.”
Exacerbated by the pandemic, public schools sit on the other side of this monopolistic equation—and not only for modern works. The Diary of Anne Frank is costing Menifee Union School District $27 per student per year in ebook format—which is the only format they are able to offer many students during the pandemic. Because this California school district is restricted by state law from using services like Kindle or Epic that may offer more affordable ebook licenses in exchange for permission to collect invasive amounts of data on students, they don’t have many options.
“I hope that authors and publishers will consider the ramifications of their decisions to limit access and what that means,” said Chrystal Woodcock (she/her), Library Media Supervisor at Menifee Union School District in California. “My biggest fear is that the idea of ownership will go away in the same ways it has within the software industry. A shift away from print books and to these limited-use licenses could be the end of libraries. Libraries are a great equalizer that give learning opportunities to people of all socio-economic backgrounds. We do need to continue to fight for access.”
“The US has come to a place where conspiracy theories and disinformation are free online, whereas real human knowledge is only for those who can pay,” said Lia Holland (she/they), Campaigns & Communications Director with Fight for the Future. “Publishing’s ecosystem has become incredibly complicated, obscuring who is being most harmed by the dog-eat-dog war between monopolistic Amazon and the few remaining large publishers. Those most harmed are disabled people, rural people, low income people, those who speak English as a second language, and young readers. This tool empowers all of us to finally recognize what is going on, and demand better.”
Publishing and ebook lending data from 2020 shows that authors in particular stand to benefit from supporting the continuation of cultural institutions that serve disabled and low income readers. With library ebook lending up a record 33% in 2020, the publishing industry saw sales rise an astounding 8%, including a 16-22% increase in ebook sales. Meanwhile, overall sales for independent bookstores were down 28% in 2020, and the increase in online sales did not make up for loss of in-store sales revenue for the majority of bookstores.
“Bookstores are the heart and soul of our communities,” said Mark Pearson (he/him), Co-Founder and CEO of Libro.fm, the audiobook platform that shares profits with 1,300+ independent bookstores. “The silver lining is that booksellers are entrepreneurial, resilient, and nothing will stop them from curating books for their customers, not even a global pandemic or Amazon’s Audible. As a result, sales of digital audiobooks through Libro.fm’s partner stores had a dramatic increase from 2020. We are optimistic about the long-term potential for bookstores to compete online in all formats. At the same time, Audible Exclusive audiobooks—also known as Audible Originals— hurt bookstores because they are consistently missing out on sales for big releases. When they aren’t able to sell audiobooks that are in high demand, potential customers will opt for Audible over their local bookstores.”
Valuable exclusive deals with authors such as Michael Pollan continue to increase Amazon’s monopolization of the market—leaving readers who cannot afford Audible, or who will not support anti-competitive practices and invasive data collection, without access. Audiobooks are of particular value to disabled readers, illiterate readers, and readers who have less leisure time. They also serve low income and rural readers by being available without requiring transportation, and help English learners with pronunciation and fluency.
“With a basis for comparison in this tool, we can now confront the true impact of an embargo or an exclusive on the institutions that have created and sustained generations of book lovers,” Holland continued. “What grades would last year’s top 10 bestsellers get? What about top LGBTQ+ or racial justice books? Which publishers are making the most equitable choices with their new releases? The results are heartbreaking.”
“Libraries are facing a threat to their very existence due to unscrupulous business practices and legal challenges to the right to lend,” said Jennie Rose Halperin (she/her) Executive Director at Library Futures. “As libraries provide increased digital services to their users, it is crucial that they maintain continual access and safeguard an accessible, equitable, open future for everyone, no matter their background. The problems are manifest, but we believe that librarians and the public can fight back through collective action and a better awareness of the issues surrounding digital enclosures.”
Image description: A square image that shows Trevor Noah’s “How accessible and available are specific books in the US?” scorecard for his book ‘Born A Crime’, accessible via the website, with the Public Schools Audio section expanded. Trevor Noah’s letter grade for accessibility and availability on this book is a D. The URL WhoCanGetYourBook.com is below the scorecard and at the top there is a graphic of falling books.