March 24, 2016

New York City Department of Education tries, yet again, to give Amazon $30 million to sell ebooks



After protests by the National Federation Of the Blind, Amazon’s $30 million deal appears to be back on the table.

Last summer, we reported on the New York City Department of Education’s proposal to employ Amazon’s services in building a massive, centralized ebook store for their entire network of schools and their 1.1 million students.

The proposed marketplace, known as “Storefront,” would allow students to access textbooks and other assigned texts via portable electronic devices, and ostensibly allow the DOE to consolidate their ebook purchasing using Amazon’s Whispercast platform to help teachers assign and monitor students’ progress on ebooks, and provide lower-cost alternatives to physical textbooks. Amazon was set to make at least $30 million in the deal over three years, with a possible additional $34.5 million if the contract is extended.

However, the plan ground to a halt in August of 2015, a day before it was set to be voted on by the Panel for Educational Policy. The stoppage came in response to a complaint from the National Federation of the Blind, who argued that visually impaired students would have difficulty or be unable to access ebooks on Amazon devices.

The NFB has a long-standing beef with Amazon over Kindle’s unfriendliness to blind or impaired readers. Under pressure from the Author’s Guild over potential infringement on audiobook rights, Amazon allowed publishers to make the decision whether their ebooks could be accessed by the device’s text-to-speech feature, making many books completely inaccessible to the blind. Distributing ebooks via Whispercast also poses problems for visually impaired students due to the platform’s conversion process, which makes certain elements of the text unreadable by text-to-speech.

However, the NFB and Amazon reconciled earlier this month, and now Storefront is back on the path to creation. Eliza Shapiro at Capital New York reports:

Now, a revised version of the contract is up for a vote by the Panel for Educational Policy next month.

[…]If approved at the April 20 PEP meeting, the marketplace will be phased in over five years, beginning this fall.

Spokespeople for the DOE and the National Federation of the Blind said all Amazon’s school marketplace contracts have been revised to better accommodate blind and visually impaired students. While neither organization furnished specific changes to the contract, both said the National Federation of the Blind will be involved with building the marketplace.

The DOE appears to have not lost any of their enthusiasm for Storefront, with one official saying that “an online marketplace will prevent any one book publisher from monopolizing book deals.” Right, because it’s not good to put all your ebooks in one multi-million-dollar basket! You definitely don’t want there to be any monopolies in the book business. No, sir.



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.