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Updated: Amazon Books Should Replace Local Libraries, and Other Publisher-Serving "Solutions"

Do you know how companies sometimes like to buy editorials that support their position (I see this a lot in the WSJ), or even go so far as to fund think tanks to produce position papers to order?

I think Forbes just gave us another example. A coupel days ago Forbes published an editorial that subtly reinforces Macmillan’s current anti-library policy.

Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.

There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system. Residents could borrow any book they wanted, read it, and return it for someone else to read.

They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy their books. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians. Libraries served as a place where residents could hold their community events, but this was a function they shared with school auditoriums. There’s no shortage of places to hold community events.

Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.

This piece was written by a professor of economics, and it is so lacking in facts or any real connection to reality that the writer gives other ivory tower intellectuals a bad name.

Edit: This piece was so bad that Forbes actually deleted the article.

There is literally not a single sentence in this piece that stands up to scrutiny. Not only has the writer never used a library, he is equally unacquainted with Amazon Books – a cursory visit would reveal it cannot provide half the services we get from libraries.

And that is just the beginning of the ignorant nonsense he spouted.

Here are my favorites:

  •  There’s no shortage of places to hold community events – says the guy who has never tried to organize one. I have a Meetup group that is on hiatus because it is so hard to find meeting spaces; if not for libraries, we would not meet at all.
  • streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced video rentals – but they only work in the about half of the country that has fast internet. And guess what? People who live in rich parts of the country still have slow internet; until I got service through Comcast, I had Verizon DSL. It was barely capable of streaming one SD video at a time, and only if you stopped all other web activity.
  • streaming services (cont’d) – Furthermore, streaming services are great if you can afford to pay for all of the upgrades to get all of the content. I can’t even afford to do that; can you?
  • streaming services (cont’d) – Another problem with streaming services that the Forbes writer didn’t mention is that the services are great right up until a studio decides to pull its content. You can’t watch what isn’t there, but you can borrow DVDs from the library (hat tip to Michael Carusi for making this point on Twitter).
  • Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services – for rich people like the Forbes writer who can afford to collect them, this is true. It is not true for the rest of us.
  • Amazon have created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books – Again, if you can afford it. Sadly, many of us are not as rich as the Forbes writer.
  • Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks – no – just no. (If I had allowed myself to become emotionally involved, this is where I would be gibbering in anger.)

And finally:

The problem with market "solutions" to public services is that it conveniently ignores the realities of market economics. There are many places that do not have bookstores because the local market will not support one. Many of those places do have libraries, however.

Furthermore, the other problem with so-called market solutions is that it frequently makes sense for a business to ignore, say, 90% of a market and instead concentrate on the 10% that is profitable.

Edit: I can phrase that better.

The other problem with so-called market solutions is that they depend on businesses that are motivated by profit rather than serving the public good. If it makes sense for a business to ignore, say, 90% of a market and instead concentrate on the 10% that is profitable, then the company will do so.

I should not have to point this out to a professor of economics, but a market solution to a public program that ignores 90% of the public is by definition not a solution, but that is academia for you.

Anyone who thinks that Amazon Books can replace a library is just as wrong as the fools who argued in 2013 that libraries could be replaced by Kindle Unlimited.

My local library serves a population of 463 thousand at a cost of $37 per resident in FY2017. It used those funds to:

  • give 92 thousand people internet access,
  • answer over 600 thousand questions,
  • loan 3.6 million books, media, and other item, and
  • host 5,152 special events and programs where 186,273 attended.

That is only a tithe of what my local library does. I have left out at least a dozen other services, none of which I could get from an Amazon Books store.

image by holisticmonkey via Flickr

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Chris July 22, 2018 um 8:07 pm

I think you’re right that this editorial was basically purchased but Macmillan’s not behind it. The guy’s publisher is Amacom, now owned by Harper Collins. Furthermore, if Amacom/Harper Collins thought this editorial was a good idea, they’re probably regretting it right about now. The guy’s 144 page book on leadership is getting destroyed by Amazon reviewers.

Nate Hoffelder July 22, 2018 um 8:17 pm

that was just me shit-posting; I really don’t know what his motive was, and I do not care

Chris July 22, 2018 um 8:24 pm

One thing I forgot to say is that blaming academia is absolutely misplaced blame, and you’re wrong about his credentials. He’s not an economist. He’s a professor of political philosophy at Long Island University. He doesn’t even have a BA in economics, much less a graduate degree. If you look at his information on LIU’s website, he’s simply a libertarian. He’s not making an economic argument because it doesn’t even enter his head to do so. He believes that government and institutions like libraries are assaults on "natural law."

Nate Hoffelder July 22, 2018 um 8:25 pm

wait, I thought he was a professor of economics? (I did actually look)

Edit: yes, it says he is a professor of economics:

Chris July 22, 2018 um 8:35 pm

You’re right, I apologize.

Amazingly, LIU has two professors with the last name Supios. The guy I found is this guy:

Darryl July 22, 2018 um 8:17 pm

I’d like to say that I seldom see such a terrible article, but sadly they are becoming far too common. One only need visit my local library to see how relevant and even necessary it actually is. Librarians, in a time of massive disruption for many reasons, have moved with the time and maintained relevance. Most unlike some publishers I could name.

Chris July 22, 2018 um 8:33 pm

I disagree they’re really becoming more common. This guy’s argument isn’t any different than a hundred other "arguments" by libertarians over the years. They basically all can be boiled down to "government is bad because it intrudes on the natural world." The guy doesn’t have a degree in economics, he’s actually a philosopher. He’s incapable of being reasoned with because he proceeds from that viewpoint without even considering whether that viewpoint is valid. His statement about stock price is an attempt to make himself relevant to people who are likely to read Forbes. Otherwise, he’s irrelevant and they’d laugh at him.

Disgusting Dude July 23, 2018 um 9:04 am

You still confusing the two professors?
The author of the piece isn’t the libertarian but the "economist".
He isn’t espousing libertarian principles of minimalist government but rather fronting for corporate money grubbers.

There is a big difference.

Nate Hoffelder July 23, 2018 um 10:13 am

No, I think this guy really is a libertarian. I would have said so but decided to leave politics out of the post.

Randy Lea July 22, 2018 um 9:27 pm

Libraries don’t generate economic activity, not much anyway. They buy books, ebooks, DVDs, etc. The reason they are great is that they don’t generate much economic activity. Instead of every patron buying every book they want to read, or other media, the library buys it once and its shared a number of times. This is incredibly efficient.

Many of the most frequent library users are kids, often young kids. They go into a library and pick out a dozen books or so, at no cost to the parents above the taxes paid. Anyone that thinks our country would be better off eliminating libraries for the use of kids is an idiot. And probably a horrible parent, if one at all.

Carmen Webster Buxton July 22, 2018 um 11:09 pm

What complete and utter balderdash! I have friends who work in the public library system, and I can tell you librarians provide a service well beyond lending books. There are people who wait in their cars for the library to open. Libraries are meeting places as well as learning and entertainment centers.

And i my opinion, "libertarian" is just a fancy word for selfish.

Mike Quick July 23, 2018 um 8:03 am

Public libraries are important and tax money is well spent. Much like the toll "Easy Pass Express Lanes", library replacement just allows tax money to be carelessly given away and wasted on other things.
"Easy Pass Express Lanes" cost tax payers plenty and look like a perfect solution on paper. Amazon would be smart to provide a Starbucks/Library and they probably will (that is partly why I bought Amazon stock). We shouldn’t blame Amazon and Easy Pass type businesses for these "bright ideas", we should focus on politicians. I don’t think "libertarians" are selfish and I don’t think this is about political parties. This is about individual politicians and proper use of tax money.

Mike Cane July 23, 2018 um 8:41 am

God bless public libraries. And let us remember that they came to us at a terrible price, from the labor of Andrew Carnegie’s forgotten workers.

Philana Crouch August 12, 2018 um 5:24 pm

The professor also forgot that many libraries offer ebooks that can be borrowed in the Kindle format. They are often higher quality books that are not available through Kindle Unlimited. I’m not knocking KU, I subscribe to it, but it doesn’t provide access to everything.

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