Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

A Comparative Study of Amazon.com as a Library Book and Media Vendor

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

A Comparative Study of Amazon.com as a Library Book and Media Vendor

Article excerpt

Amazon.com offers convenience, Web extras, and competitive pricing to its customers. Does this mean it could be a major player in the library marketplace? To answer the hypothetical question "What if the library bought everything from Amazon?" this paper reports on an in-house study of Amazon's potential and performance as a library vendor, using order data from the Belk Library at Appalachian State University.

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Amazon.com, from its incorporation in 1994, has become a business and cultural phenomenon. The firm's founder, Jeff Bezos, was Time Magazine's man of the year in 1999, and the story of Amazon's meteoric growth and corresponding fall is legendary. During the dot-com bust of 2000-2002, its per share price fell from its historical high of $113 in 1999 to $5.51 in 2001, and the company went from Wall Street darling to pariah. (1) Since then, Amazon has reported its first annual net profit of $35.3 million for 2003, and share prices have bounced back. (2) The company continues an aggressive strategy of technological innovation and expansion, including acquisition of the Chinese online retailer Joyo. com in August 2004 for $72 million. (3) Whatever its eventual fortunes as a business enterprise, Amazon has become enmeshed in contemporary culture; it makes news and inspires comment because of its name and history. Indicative of the omnipresence of Amazon.com, a keyword search in Infotrac ASAP using "Amazon. com" retrieved 2,189 articles, while a search using "Barnes & Noble," its largest books and media competitor, retrieved 956 articles. These results do not reflect Barnes & Noble's bigger market share of $5.95 billion in sales, compared to Amazon's $4 billion in books and media for 2003. (4)

Amazon is also the object of some interest within the library world. Coffman created a large ripple with a March 1999 article that argued for using Amazon as a model for libraries to collectively build a single, seamless worldwide library collectively. (5) Other articles have proposed emulating Amazon's reviews and reader's advisories, reported on linking to Amazon content from the online catalog, or described the experience of selling withdrawn titles or unwanted donations through Amazon Marketplace. (6) Several articles appeared after Amazon introduced their search-inside-the-book feature, which indexes the full-text of 120,000 titles and allows for browsing of small sections of retrieved books. (7) Just as coffee shops in bookstores are the inspiration for the spate of cafes in new library buildings, so also are Amazon's pictures of book jackets and reviews the inspiration for similar services from library book vendors.

Much of the research and commentary either holds up Amazon as a model or laments libraries' failures to achieve in almost forty years of library computerization what Amazon has delivered in a fraction of the time. This paper looks at the online retailer from a more prosaic angle: how does it perform as a library book and media vendor? Based on such measurable criteria as price, selection, reliability, and speed, how is Amazon best used? As a personal shopper, having spent $1,372.03 at the Web site in five years, this author finds Amazon convenient, fast, and consistently well-priced. (8) Does this personal experience translate into a positive institutional one?

Library vendors, particularly large ones offering a full range of products and services, including approval plans, approach their business as a collaborative effort between themselves and their library clients. They work with libraries to develop highly detailed subject and format profiles that help to streamline the selection and acquisition of new materials. Discounts are agreed upon up front and the exceptions are known in advance. Successful client-vendor relationships depend on frequent communication to solve problems and identify new areas of service. Although Amazon offers bulk buying for institutions using a line of credit, it does not claim to be or act like a traditional library vendor. …

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