Andrew-AlbaneseAbout that $30M deal between and Amazon and the NYC schools: e-book formats aren’t the only question.

How private will students’ book-related profiles be in real life? And will Amazon enjoy a marketing advantage by way of the profiles? What’s more, long term, could the deal even be bad news for public libraries—now so dependent on OverDrive, which lost out to Amazon for the contract?

Those questions run through my mind after reading Andrew Richard Albanese’s article in the July 31 Publishers Weekly.

“I am by no stretch an anti-Amazon guy,” Albanese writes. “For all its troubles, I think Amazon has brought great innovation to the book business. But given my experience on the consumer side, I do have concerns about how an Amazon push into the school e-book market will play out. For example, are we about to hand over to Amazon the data it needs to create market profiles for every student in New York City? The Capital New York report notes that all the content secured under the deal can be used on a variety of devices, including smartphones, tablets, PCs, and Macs. But the DOE documents also note that each student will have an ‘individualized profile.’”

If nothing else, keep in mind another Amazon-and-OverDrive-related issue. OverDrive offers a pathway to Kindle books now for public libraries and their patrons. What happens if Amazon ends that arrangement and focuses more on government-related markets? Encouraged by the New York win, Jeff Bezos just may want to go direct to libraries. So much for OverDrive as a middleman?

Yes, OverDrive has been building up its own technology and from the start has assiduously courted publishers. But will those efforts suffice against Amazon? Will Rakuten, the parent company of Kobo, regret its $410-million buy of OverDrive?

Earlier in the PW piece Albanese wonders if libraries will lose out to commercial services that can offer books and other content without the same hassles that library patrons endure when they check out e-books. Well, we know that publishers are becoming more flexible with business models, which could help. But Albanese’s concerns are still legitimate, especially in the case of Amazon. Who knows how this will shake out? Will libraries end up being even more subservient to Amazon than they are now to OverDrive, despite laudable projects that could make them more independent?

Taking this one step further, will more people then be asking whether public libraries should exist in the first place? Granted, libraries are about much more than books. But for decades, books have been their main calling card, and it’s difficult to change public perception—which isn’t to say it’s such a good idea anyway, given the country’s literacy needs.

Bogged down by a Not Invented Here syndrome, many public librarians so far have resisted a call for a national digital library endowment and the creation of two separate but intertwined digital library systems for the U.S.—one public, one private. Perhaps it’s time for them to reconsider if they want to stay in business. Already certain commentators have called for Amazon to replace public libraries as book providers.


  1. Today’s interest in privacy is an outlier. Back in the mid-1980s, when I was in graduate school at the University of Washington, the school had recently converted to all digital for the catalog and checkout, but had yet to remove the old check-out cards from books. Two facts about that are of interest.

    First, some of the topics I was studying were so obscure, the last time some of the books I was using was checked out was in the 1930s. That I found fascinating. With today’s privacy concerns, I’d have no way of knowing that.

    Second, for reasons that I don’t understand, those checking out books as late as the early 1980s were required to put not only their name, phone number and their current address on the card, That information was available to anyone who later pulled the book down from the shelf. Was it a safer world, and thus not in need of privacy safeguards, or are we more paranoid that we need to be today? I’m not sure. We are troubled by advocacy groups whose mission it to stroke fear and distrust.

    Times have changed. Now, iif that book reading data exists in digital form, it becomes Big Data and can be mish-mashed in a host of different ways. Want to use the IRS to attack not just organizations opposed to say the Obama administration’s agenda but the people themselves. What better way than to get a list of those subversives than the books they’re reading? For students, there’d be the data the school has about that student and his parents. For Amazon-like retailers, the reach of Big Data would be truly enormous. It’d be tied to credit cars which can then tie into bank accounts and a host of other financial information. The IRS could not only target pro-Israel people, they could especially target those who’re facing tight finances.

    Also, keep in mind some other factors.

    1. Since the 1980s, there’s been a push in some educrat circles to create a database on students that’d follow them from pre-school all the way through college. Get disciplined for yanking cute little Susie’s pig-tails in the second grade because you like her (little boys are strange), it’d be lurking in the shadows for opposition researchers when you run for governor forty years later. We’ve already seen hints of that in some elections. Big Data is dangerous data.

    2. Schools tend to screw up. I know. About once or week or so I get a call from someone wanting to know why the ebook access code their school gave them doesn’t work. I have to tell them that I’m “Inkling Books” ( and they want to contact Inkling (in a special font) at Interestingly, although we’re in similar fields and have similar names, my common-law trademark to Inkling Books trumps their Inkling (in the special font). We’re both just going to have to tread gently around the confusion our similar names create.

    3. Public libraries are at risk as more and more of their patrons get their books in digital form from some other source. Even avid readers who haven’t visited their local library because they get everything online may not vote for library funding. It’s the same issue I suspect is impacting NPR radio. Ten years ago, people listen NPR shows on their local affiliate, giving them reason to support it. Now many get NPR shows via podcasts and their need to keep their local station alive is much lessened. They’re not even likely to hear when it launches a fund drive.

    Changing times are always interesting times, times when we need to be alert and watchful.

  2. I’ve been stewing over some of those questions as well and now I have even more to think about.

    Does this answer one of your questions? Does it alleviate or lessen a concern? I’m making the assumption that the DOE is limiting information to Amazon but I could be wrong……..

    From the Request for Authorization- Despite this technology’s capacity for tracking and reporting student progress, students’ personal identifiable information will be safeguarded in this system, as Amazon will use a DOE-provided proxy with encrypted information and limited student information.

  3. @Anne: Thanks. So people will know, here’s your source.

    We’ll see how the precautions work out. Hard to say, long term. Of course, this raises another question—could public libraries work out similar arrangements with Amazon and OverDrive on behalf of their patrons?

    The other issue is how sophisticated the encryption is. And how about the possibility of “social engineering” bypassing even the most elaborate technology?


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