Library Books on the Kindle, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Amazon

This evening, I talked with Jason Perlow of ZDNet about libraries, Amazon, eBook lending, and the future of the eBook as a medium. (We hit a lot of different topics so I might be missing one.) Jason had written an article nearly a year ago concerning the revolution of eBooks creating a digital underclass; his position was that with push towards digital, eventually there would be a turnover to exclusively digital content. In making things only available that way, it would create a new variation of the digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots. I had written a reply to this article asking why the rise of one format would necessarily kill another and talked a bit about the current (at the time) relationship between libraries and eBook lenders. With the Kindle coming to Overdrive last week and the announcement of the new Amazon devices this week, Jason wanted to touch revisit those articles and talk about the future of eBooks as it relates to libraries and the rest of the world. While I will provide a link to that discussion once Jason makes it available, there are a few thoughts I wanted to talk about.

First and foremost, Amazon is not actually lending these books. They are simply making their device and file format available to Overdrive. This is still an arrangement between publishers, Overdrive, and libraries. So while Amazon is renting out ebook versions of textbooks, they are not lending out fiction or non-fiction books. Historically, Amazon isn’t a company that makes a business deal for something they plan on rolling out in the near future. If they were to start lending books, my feeling is that they would either buy Overdrive or create their own lending enterprise.

In either case, Amazon would need to make deals with publishers for permission to lend content. Given their track record on the pricing front as publishers shift to agency pricing models, this would be a pretty interesting negotiation. Also, publishers would need to be convinced that eBook lending would be a viable revenue stream; since they have taken to considering borrowing as a lost sale, this would be an additional hurdle.

I find the rumors about Amazon (or some other company) developing a Netflix-style eBook lending program to be equally intriguing. Was there a outcry when Netflix started up as librarians expressed concern about losing DVD circulations? I’m guessing there wasn’t. Even so, it’ll be a premium service limited to Amazon Kindle owners (leaving out the other 60% of the market).

Second, I believe that Amazon opened up the Kindle to Overdrive for one very good and business related reason: information. Amazon is notorious for not releasing any numerical information, whether it is the number of Kindle books sold or the number of Kindle devices on the market. They believe in the power of information and data collection and have wielded it well in developing their products and services. In running the lending portion of library eBooks through their website, they capture a data point that their competition doesn’t. While Sony, Apple, and Barnes & Noble don’t have a clue as to what people are reading or borrowing on their devices, Amazon gets to expand its consumer knowledge. What they will do with the information that they gather from library lenders, I don’t know; but I have a feeling that we’ll see something in the next year or two (even if it is just an improvement on their recommendation algorithms).

Now, when it comes to any patron personal information, that has the easiest resolution. As library records are protected by state laws, it would be a matter for the state’s attorney general to make certain that they are not receiving such information. Although, since patrons need to an Amazon account to borrow through the Kindle, the company already has a ton of information as it is. What are we afraid of, that Amazon will get their library card number? Since those individuals have already given their bank and/or credit card numbers to Amazon in order to purchase Kindle books, I think the library card number would be the least of their worries.

I have to admit that I don’t entirely get the “libraries got a raw deal” vibe that is wandering around the blogosphere. Yes, the Kindle is still locked in proprietary hardware as well as using DRM software on its content. This was true before and after Overdrive made the deal to gain access to their devices. What exactly changed to make this situation worse for libraries? While there are protests to the contrary, there is nothing compelling libraries to purchase Kindle eBooks from Overdrive (or any books, for that matter). I’ve said it before on eBooks and I’ll say it again: if you think it’s a bad deal, then don’t buy it.

For those bemoaning that they are doing it for their library users, either consider such rationale to be an absolution for a purchase that you consider to be (to be diplomatic) ill-advised or find better use for your time than trying to climb up on the indignation cross. There is nothing stopping you from working on better educating decision makers and supporters, finding alternate eBook solutions, or negotiating for better deals with Overdrive. This pouting like a child who didn’t get a particular flavor of chocolate ice cream is not going to change the status quo nor will it make the profession look worthy of engaging in negotiation as to the future of eBooks.

While it may not be the ideal, it cannot be denied that bringing Amazon (and its 40% of the eReader market share) on board with library lending doesn’t raise the profile of libraries with it. Rather than simply buying every book, Kindle users now have the option of borrowing it through their local library. It’s not perfect, but even in giving that capability it puts libraries back into the minds of people who might not otherwise be library users. For them, it’s another selling point; for us, it’s another visit to our website where we advertise our programs, services, and materials. It’s an exposure opportunity that didn’t previously exist.

I meant it when I wrote it with Sarah when it comes to the eBook Users Bill of Rights: I want books to be available on any platform in any format and without DRM. But I can’t and won’t take any shortcoming to that goal as a sign of surrender; it just means that I have to push a little bit harder for a little bit longer. The resolution of this goal will not measured within the duration of a cable news cycle, but in the subsequent generations and how they perceive information access. Amazon has opened their device to library eBook lending; let’s see what the next thing we as librarians can do to bring them around to our position.

12 thoughts on “Library Books on the Kindle, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Amazon

  1. “Rather than simply buying every book, Kindle users now have the option of borrowing it through their local library.”

    Except that they don’t unless their library has purchased the title and it is available. So many titles are not available to our patrons or there are holds and long waits. I’m afraid that this fact alone will make us look even more unappealing when it comes to the ebook market. I know there are other business models and vendors (our library currently uses OverDrive, but we’re looking at Ebsco) that provide unlimited access to some titles and that would reduce the wait time. But all of this still costs money. Although we should be providing ebooks in order to level the playing field and give everyone the chance to access digital content without paying for it, I don’t think libraries’ strength is ultimately going to be found in the ebook market. Thanks, though, for providing this information. It does help to put the whole argument into a better perspective.

    • “Except that they don’t unless their library has purchased the title and it is available. So many titles are not available to our patrons or there are holds and long waits.”

      I’m not quite sure how this is unique to ebooks. These are the very same issues libraries have been dealing with for their entire existence– and we’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with them too. Admittedly, I’m at a very well funded library, so we have the resources to buy lots of copies of titles–both print and “e”, but I don’t know of any libraries that couldn’t divert at least some funds from little used areas of the print collection toward popular “e” titles if that’s what they decide to make their priority.

  2. In my mind, the difference is in the means of access. You don’t have instant access to a print title if you order it through Amazon. You have to wait for it to be delivered. However, if you want an ebook you can have it *now* with a one-click purchase. I’m sure there are people who will still be willing to wait for the e-title to become available through their library. But many will not.

    • I’m not certain about the “many will not” statement, but I reckon we are going to find out very shortly if that is true. It’ll be an investigation since it is information that we’ll have to get from the patron.

    • No, you don’t have *instant* access if you buy a print copy though Amazon, but you don’t have to wait nearly as long as you typically would for a print copy of a recent bestseller at a library either…AND if you’re buying the title anyway, you always have the option to buy it from your local bookstore and get it instantly. Even so, people still chose to borrow from the library instead. I don’t think the format in question changes that at all (of course, if e-books from Amazon come down in price to the level comparable to a song from i-tunes, that could change things).

  3. I think what you said last is key. And things are changing so fast that I’m just afraid that libraries (which are notoriously slow to change) will not be able to keep up in this particular area. But who knows for sure what the future holds?

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