Hey Amazon: Where Is the Netflix for College Textbooks?


Is reading going the way of all-you-can view movies? In the era of 50 million Netflix subscribers, Amazon just announced an all-you-can-read service called Kindle Unlimited that offers a collection of over 600,000 eBook titles for $9.99 per month. Hooray for those wishing to read book series like “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Hunger Games.”

But what about the 20 million college students about to read volumes of psychology, history, physiology, and humanities textbooks? With summer half over, most are turning their attention to purchasing expensive textbooks in a few short weeks.

The Amazon Textbook Store makes millions of dollars annually on students who now shop online and buy their textbooks with or without their parent’s credit cards, avoiding the empty shelves of their college bookstores who have run out of used books even prior to the class starting.

A small and unimpressive handful of the widely used textbooks needed by college students are being offered on Amazon’s self-proclaimed “Netflix for books” service. Take for example, McGraw Hill’s College Physics, 4th Edition by Alan Giambattista which still sells for over $200 on Amazon or Pearson’s College Algebra (6th Edition) by Robert F. Blitzer for over $140 for a simple Kindle download. Even a free to use open-source textbook like Introduction to Sociology by Openstax College, which was funded by Dr. Gary Michelson’s 20 Million Minds Foundation on behalf of students, is offensively being offered on Amazon Textbooks for $29, not including shipping.

These textbooks should be an integral part of Kindle Unlimited, yet they are not.

Rather than shake up an industry in need of a disruptive push, Amazon has chosen to keep the old monopoly driven billion-dollar college textbook industry intact. Rather than allowing students to download their books for roughly $30 per semester they are again stuck with an unimpressive promise of free two-day shipping for purchasing on Amazon’s site.

It seems the true and most lasting impact of allowing “books” to be served up Netflix style isn’t for the average trade-book reader who used to purchase about 25 Kindle books per year, but rather the student shelling out $1200 per year for textbooks most cannot afford.

It’s been a huge problem for decades. A lingering thorn to students and their parents every semester, regrettably chronicled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which reports that the price of textbooks has risen more than 800 percent over the past 30 years, a rate faster than medical services (575 percent), new home prices (325 percent), and the consumer price index (250 percent).

Amazon’s announcement clearly would have been and maybe still can be a game-changer if this retail Goliath offered all college textbooks produced by the four leading textbook publishers who control 80 percent of the market and sell their goods on Amazon’s online market channel.

Unfortunately, the Big Four aren’t on the 600,000 free book list offering their most profitable textbooks that are projected to cost students over $10 billion this academic year.

There isn’t a popular textbook from Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Cengage available on Amazon Unlimited.

And even in the books-for-pleasure category, this new subscription service was announced without a single secure deal from the Big 5 trade-book publishers: Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster.

So where are the 600,000 free books coming from? Most are from Amazon’s own publishing program and from Kindle Direct Publishing library. Most industry experts are calling Amazon’s press driven announcement the marketing of a $120 “glorified library card,” but then again most can simply use their Kindle now to check out e-books from most public libraries for free on apps like Overdrive.

The Amazon announcement was not a novel breakthrough. Today, providers with similar services include Oyster Books ($9.95 per month) or Scribd ($8.99 per month), both with smaller book selections than Kindle Unlimited (500,000 and 400,000 titles, respectively), but who have at least secured major players like HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster.

For college students starting classes in about 90 days, Amazon’s all-you-can-read announcement could have challenged the monetary hold they have on 20 million U.S. college students.

Textbook publishers today have college students paralyzed to a point they rarely buy all required textbooks according to the advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). In a recently issued report entitled, “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market” they cite data that confirms 94 percent of the students reported not buying the required book and 65 percent of them decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive.

Amazon’s entry into the subscription space could have ended faculty’s practice of sending students to the college bookstore for a $150 textbook (average cost of over $1200 per year) and instead making students aware that they can purchase Amazon Unlimited for $30 the entire semester.

Amazon has always been the strongest of the tech warriors, able to tame monopolistic players in the retail market, thus I had hope they would be able to offer students a contrasting distribution model that offers them an easy path to affordable textbooks. Students more than ever need “Book-of-the-Semester Club” available today for trade books or a $9.99 subscription service offered to them when they buy movies, videos, and music.

Unfortunately, the four largest textbook publishers have their own insidious version of a subscription model. CourseSmart, a digital arm of all four publishers, with textbooks three deep in most subjects, announced Subscription Packs last year, a service offering “qualifying” students a limited, set to expire in 150 days, choice of no more than 6 books for $200. In short, textbook publishers continue to control their distribution channels and are unlikely to join the Amazon experiment.

Is this REALLY the model for college textbook savings, or rather the model allowing increased publisher profits? Imagine any current trade book subscription startup asking their readers to pay $200 every 150 days to access only 6 books, when today they charge $9.99 for over 600,000 books?

Imagine the real Netflix telling its customers they will pay nearly $500 per year to access only 12 movies or TV shows and after 3 months each will conclusively expire.

The Amazon announcement empty as it is, should be a wake-up call. We need innovative tech companies like Amazon to push textbooks along a Netflix path and bring textbook publishers to the table to offer a low cost “all-you-can-read” plan of no more than $9.99 per month available to all college students without all the restrictions and disappearing content.

This approach is what education is all about. Heavy on sharing knowledge, it destroys the notion that educational information is proprietary and can be locked away in some pricey expiring eBook code or publishers holding back from participating in subscription models like Amazon’s.

Clearly a true pioneering Netflix textbook subscription model would support what students already intuitively experience on their iPads and laptops, all filled with thousands of content choices from video, movies, or music, but purchased at a fraction of the cost. Why should textbooks be any different?