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Libro.fm and Kanopy: audiobooks and free streaming to cure quarantine boredom—and support local communities

You have no shortage of entertainment options as you stay indoors during the coronavirus crisis. But not all of them benefit local bookstores and public libraries.

Libro.fm and Kanopy: audiobooks and free streaming to cure quarantine boredom—and support local communities
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It’s easy to fall into a routine these days, relying on the usual diet of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Audible, and the like for your quarantainment needs. But two options from smaller companies that are worth your attention are Libro.fm and Kanopy. Both provide top-tier content with the added benefit of bolstering institutions that could use some extra support during the COVID-19 crisis: local bookstores and libraries. Bonus: Kanopy is free. Here’s how they work.

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Libro.fm: audiobooks from the anti-Amazon

Len Vlahos is an author and owner of Tattered Cover, a small bookstore in Denver. He is one of thousands of business owners who had to close physical locations due to the COVID-19 crisis, but his staff is still working to fulfill orders digitally. The demand for orders at the Tattered Cover is so high at the moment that it had to establish set ordering hours.

Independent bookstores have long been industry underdogs who must fight for survival against Amazon and big chain retailers. So closing up shops, even temporarily, during the pandemic could be fatal to their bottom lines. But the Tattered Cover is one of the 1,000-plus independent bookstores in the U.S. that have teamed up with the audiobook company Libro.fm, which splits sales 50/50 with local bookstores. And these days, that partnership is proving more valuable than ever by keeping revenue streams flowing and workers safe.

“Libro.fm is a scrappy indie company that markets exclusively through indie bookstores, so we have a shared ethos,” Vlahos tells Fast Company. “We’ve seen a big spike in audiobook orders since the coronavirus crisis began. It’s a great way to spend extra time that so many people have now. People are listening to audiobooks when they walk, jog, wash the dishes. It’s also a lot of entertainment for a small amount of money, and we benefit every time one of our customers makes a purchase at our co-branded site.”

Libro.fm launched in 2014 after its founders, Mark Pearson, Carl Hartung, and Nick Johnson, gathered at Third Place Books, a Seattle-based shop, and expressed frustration with the state of the industry. They realized that revenue from audiobooks could be crucial to helping independent bookstores thrive. It was a big idea, especially because that other company that starts with the letter A dominates the audiobook space, and is also based in Seattle. “We’re right in the shadow of Amazon, which is the owner of Audible, so it’s definitely a David and Goliath sort of thing,” says Albee Romero, director of publicity.

Though the company is still relatively small with 10 employees, over the past six years, it has grown from a big idea into a network beloved by bookworms, offering more than 150,000 titles that span a variety of ages and interests—from literary fiction to sci-fi to children’s books and more. Customers can choose between a monthly membership or purchasing à la carte, but either way, they select which bookstore (or stores) they want their purchases to support. The promise of excellent, personalized customer service is key to Libro.fm’s small-business personality. The website has a photo of the company’s team and encourages customers to “get to know us on a first name basis—because for all who are a part of the Libro.fm story, we promise to do the same.”

Libro.fm has a strong presence on social media, which has become a vital lifeline to its community now that sales have moved entirely online. A vocal member of the Libro.fm club is comedian and author Cameron Esposito, who often gives shout-outs to her favorite indie booksmiths on Twitter and recently did an interview on the company’s blog. “I was a nerdy, constantly reading kid. As an adult, when I travel, I make stopping in indie bookshops a priority,” she says in the interview. “Boston’s Brookline Booksmith got me through college. Chicago’s Women and Children First was a reason to head to Andersonville when I lived in a neighborhood much further south. When I perform in Denver—most frequently at Comedy Work—Tattered Cove is a place I walk to daily to browse and buy and browse some more. In Los Angeles where I live today, Skylight Books is my local shop. I’m in there all the time.”

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Charitable initiatives have always been part of Libro.fm’s identity. That hasn’t changed during the pandemic. On April 10, it wrapped up #ShopBookstoresNow, which launched on March 15 and gave bookstores 100% of sales when users purchased à la carte and $15 when they used a credit. The campaign raised more than $73,632 for independent booksellers and has led to an 800% increase in traffic to the Libro.fm site, a 200% increase in new memberships, and more audiobook listening than ever before in the history of the company.

 “They’re very creative, really funny, and meaningful,” says BrocheAroe Fabian, owner of the Portland, Ore.-based River Dog Book Co, and one of 10 booksellers that Libro.fm has brought on for a month to help organize a variety of projects. “And with the #Shopbookstores campaign, not only were they incredibly generous, but they’re a business, they need their own staff in the midst of this, but they really recognize that regardless of where we are economically, whether or not our stores are open, audiobooks can be purchased and downloaded by anyone.”

The newest campaign is #SocksForBINC, a partnership with 10 artists to create socks designed with book lovers in mind. Profits will go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation to support booksellers across the country affected by COVID-19. 

And here’s a little bonus argument in favor of listening to books in this time of mostly bad news: According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobooks help build and enhance vital literacy skills such as fluency, vocabulary, language acquisition, pronunciation, phonemic awareness, and comprehension. They can also help people relax and keep negative thinking down.

Kanopy: free streaming with your library card

Kanopy‘s mission statement is “to democratize meaningful film and television.” Based in San Francisco, the company partners with a network of more than 4,000 public libraries and universities, along with movie studios and indie distributors, in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. to offer free streaming of movies and TV. That’s right: free, as in no charge.

All anyone needs to access Kanopy is a library card. Users are awarded a number of credits per month that they can put toward watching any of the tens of thousands of films in the cinephile-friendly catalog, which skews more high-brow than not and is supplied by distribution partners that include Paramount Pictures, A24, The Criterion Collection, and HBO Documentary Films. The collection ranges from recent acclaimed indie hits like The Farewell and Moonlight to Charlie Chaplin classics and educational documentaries. (A one stop shop for Hollywood tentpoles and blockbusters this is not.) For the next several weeks, to give quarantined subscribers more options as they while away the hours indoors, Kanopy is offering a rotating selection of credit-free titles offered by some of its other partners.

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Not surprisingly, Kanopy has seen an uptick in activity on its network over the past several weeks. “With everyone on lockdown at home, demand has definitely gone up. We’re seeing an almost twofold increase in demand,” says Kevin Sayar, CEO of Kanopy. “Our biggest focus right now has been on helping libraries manage this new uptick in usage, so we’ve been working closely with our independent and major studio partners, making sure that we get those quality films.”

Kanopy’s content can be viewed multiple ways: directly from its website, or via Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and various other platforms. The San Francisco-based company uses Twitter and Instagram to inform users about what’s available, which changes regularly to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Stressed-out parents also have a new option for (mostly) guilt-free babysitting: Kanopy Kids, which is stocked with titles like the animated adaptations of Mo Willems’ pigeon book series, Back to School With Franklin, and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Kanopy also boasts a robust selection of films that are difficult to find elsewhere—including educational documentaries. Dr. Sycarah Fisher, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, says Kanopy has been particularly helpful for her remote lessons during quarantine.”I actually just pulled a video from there for my social emotional assessment class, where we are going over providing services to kids who have ADHD and emotional behavioral disorders,” she tells Fast Company. “The video is called Who Cares About Kelsey, and it’s been really helpful to have access because I think a lot of these videos are not accessible otherwise.”

A challenge for libraries since Kanopy’s launch as a digital service in 2012 has been balancing costs: the lending institutions pay about $2 per movie play, which has become prohibitive for some. (In 2019, all New York City public libraries pulled out of the Kanopy network for this reason.) Though Sayar declined to provide specifics, he noted that Kanopy is giving its library partners “substantial discounts” to ensure that they, “and all associated communities, are supported throughout this pandemic.”

If you’re in the mood to show libraries some extra love (or tardily observe #NationalLibraryWeek, which kicked off April 20), Kanopy suggests the 2017 documentary Ex Libris: New York Public Library, which you can view credit-free until May 19.

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