The Huffington Post said on Friday that KindleUnlimited was “essentially an e-book version of your free neighborhood library, except it costs money.” This argument was picked up by the usual anti-Amazon crowd and made a splash on Twitter after it was posted.
If you’re unfamiliar with KindleUnlimited, the concept is simple: it’s Netflix for books. Instead of paying for an individual ebook, you pay a monthly fee of $9.99 to Amazon and get unlimited access to hundreds of thousands of ebooks and audiobooks. Amazon came under a little fire for the service because…well because it seems Amazon can’t do anything lately without getting called evil for it.
There are two main points I wanted to make about this.
First, Amazon did not invent this concept. Services like Oyster and Scribd have been doing it for a while now. Despite the fact that its catalog is much larger, Amazon priced KindleUnlimited at essentially the same price point as its competition: Oyster is $9.95 per month, and Scribd is $8.99 per month. Even if you buy the argument that the whole idea is a rip-off (more on that in a moment), why single out Amazon for offering a competing service? There’s obviously a call for it out there, or Oyster and Scribd wouldn’t exist. If Amazon were gouging its users with a huge price difference for similar services, I could see the argument, but as it is, they’re simply offering a new method to access their products based on obvious consumer demand. If the demand isn’t really there, the market won’t support it. This obsessive focus on Amazon because it’s Amazon isn’t helping anyone’s cause; it’s just making Amazon’s opponents look stupid and discriminatory.
Secondly, the argument itself isn’t well thought out. Sure, you can get a free public library card in most municipalities throughout the United States and get access to a lot of the books that you can get on Amazon. Yes, most libraries also offer free borrowing of ebooks now. But saying it’s wrong to sell something you can get for free elsewhere is kind of missing the point. The fact is, consumers often want to pay for something they can get for free, for a variety of reasons. Don’t get me wrong: I love the library, and use my own periodically when I can. But not every public library is created equal. I live in a small town, and our library is staffed primarily by volunteers, and they don’t have a huge selection of books. Their science fiction and fantasy collection, in particular, is pretty lackluster. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone down to the library looking for a book, old or new, only to find that they simply didn’t own it. Yes, you can order a copy through inter-library loan, but that takes time and even that doesn’t guarantee you’ll find what you’re looking for. It makes complete sense to me why someone who does a lot of reading would be willing to spend ten bucks a month for access to more than half a million books. That’s not a lot of money, the access is instant, and the service is reliable.
Take Netflix, the model on which KindleUnlimited is based. Public libraries also offer movies for free; you can also catch a lot of older movies on basic cable. With the increasing availability of on demand cable, most TV shows are available, at some point and in some form, right through your cable provider as well. But people still cough up $15 a month for instant access to Netflix’s collection.
Just because something’s free doesn’t mean it’s better. Comparatively speaking, it’s free to wash your car at home, with the hose, an old bucket, and a sponge, but a lot of people still pay upwards of $15 for a wash and wax at the local car wash. It’s free to grow your own vegetables too, but most landowners buy them at the supermarket like everyone else. Come to think of it, a great many of the classic works of literature one finds on the shelves of bookstores, physical and digital, are in the public domain, their content free to all, and yet publishers (like traditional publishing’s precious Hachette) routinely reprint them and make royalty-free profits. And people buy them. I have. Why? Convenience. Quality. Speed.
If you don’t think it’s worth the money, don’t buy it. But don’t blame a company for making a reasonable business decision to offer a product consumers have shown a desire to pay for. Most healthy adults are perfectly capable of changing their own tire, but most of them still call AAA to do it for them, because it’s worth the price to them. And that’s OK.