The Amazon Lending Library is NOT the Library Apocalypse

The big news today is this:

Amazon announces a Kindle Owner’s Lending Library

At first glance, it seems like a pretty mind blowing announcement. But when you read between the lines, it doesn’t look quite so epic. Consider this reality based revision of the line above:

Amazon announces that Amazon Prime members ($79/year) who own Kindles ($79 & upwards, depending on which version you have and when you bought it) are entitled to borrow up to one book per calendar month from a predetermined selection of 5,000 titles (out of the estimated 600,000+ titles on the website) of which over 100 (~2%) are current or former New York Times Bestsellers (and who knows where they appeared on the list)

A little perspective can change the whole thing.

The part that really cracked me up is the phrase “You can borrow a new book as frequently as once a month” in their help section. Since the only other number possible is zero times a month, I guess they have to try to sell what they have as best as they can.

I have to imagine that there are a couple things going on behind this. First, Amazon had to get the publishers on board with this idea. Based on their overall shift to agency pricing and desire to build their own eBook platforms, I am guessing that those negotiations were pretty intense. A retailer wanting to lend our book to their website members? That would explain why the list of available titles is relatively small compared to the overall Kindle catalog and the extremely low borrowing frequency. (I guess two books a month would be like giving away the whole store.) I also think it will be the publishers that will reign in any further expansion of this kind of lending program… that is unless Amazon creates a Netflix-esque model for books at a price they are willing to accept.

[insert horror movie music here]

Second, in trying to look at this development from Amazon’s point of view, they know how many books the average Kindle owner buys in a month. The number of times someone can borrow through their service is not a casual number they thought up; there is some statistics behind their choice. Once a month lending is also a good way to both reward Amazon Prime members as well as encourage reading (which has been shown to encourage book purchases). This kind of lending is the best ‘free store sample’ of the ereader age, trumping the Nook’s ‘read in the store for one hour per day’ deal. It’s a good perk at a relatively low price for the member while utilizing the infrastructure in place.

For the people who still want to pick up the “Libraries are Screwed” banner and run with it, take a moment to reflect on this situation. It’s a private sector company that is spending money on a service that the public has become reluctant to fund with their tax money. Amazon has created a subscription library at a cost that is comparative to the average per capita library spending (your mileage may vary based on your state) at a time when library spending and budgets are generally down. To me, it signals that the market for readers (people who read, not devices) is strong enough to sustain a decision like this; that, if the purpose is to sell more ebooks, this move will move to do that. I believe that this is something which is complimentary to one of our own core missions: literacy.

Amazon’s lending program is certainly worth watching, but is it the library apocalypse? No. Why? Because lending books isn’t the only thing the library does anymore. Even if the private sector moved in on the whole material lending business, libraries would still survive on the basis on access and instruction. The only thing that would die is the current state of the library. In my estimation, that’s not a bad thing at all.

20 thoughts on “The Amazon Lending Library is NOT the Library Apocalypse

  1. Lendle.me is traditionally the place i go to borrow kindle content for free (and legally). In addition, netgalley will give you pre-release content for free for your Kindle.

    The apocalypse has come and gone for the observant.

    • Based on the FAQ page of Lendle.me I have to disagree with you. Maybe Lendle has changed the way that you personally obtain books but that doesn’t denote a worldwide library apocalypse.
      First, Lendle is only availalbe in the U.S., so most of the world;s population doesn’t have access to this service.
      Second, in order to just borrow books from Lendle: “You must own Kindle books and be willing to lend them. Lendle aims to be the fairest lending service available. To that end, we have implemented an algorithm that determines whether or not you’re allowed to borrow books. When you first join the site and add at least one book you own, you’ll be given two borrow requests. After that, the more books you add and the more books you lend, the more you’ll be able to borrow.”
      At a public library there is no algorithm from who gets to borrow books or how many, anyone can borrow as many items as they like for no cost at all. One does not have to own a book in order to borrow more.

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  3. Andy I completely agree with you, in my post http://librarianbyday.net/2011/11/03/amazon-announced-kindle-lending-library-for-prime-members/
    I wrote that I see this affecting publishers and authors far more than libraries. Avid readers read far more than one book a month. Plus I checked on most of the books were priced at $7.99 or less and nothing on my 5 page wishlist of books was available, which kinda pisses me off since I’m already a Prime Member and Kindle Owner :-)

  4. “Even if the private sector moved in on the whole material lending business, libraries would still survive on the basis on access and instruction. The only thing that would die is the current state of the library. In my estimation, that’s not a bad thing at all.”

    I tend to agree with this as a theoretical statement – but many absolutely see ‘material lending’ as the raison d’etre of libraries. If you look at the arguments playing out across the UK as public libraries are being closed (50% in my area), there is a focus from those outside the library sector (and that includes politicians making the decisions) on the ‘library as lender’ model.

    The danger is not that libraries/librarians/information skills become redundant – that’s just not going to happen. It’s that they lose public funding, and this impacts disproportionately on specific segments of society.

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  7. Urp! “as frequently as once a month” sounds downright pathetic to a librarian! Every librarian in the country should pick up on this and remind folks that they can borrow *lots* more than that!

  8. I read Amazon failed to secure the 6 main pub houses, ergo, meh…
    Though I’m an indie reader myself, I believe the majority are going to want those top billing titles, making this more a bottle-rocket than a firework. Now, if Amazon eventually sells the high-end Kindle for free with a mid-level subscriber contract, that may cause a bit more concern in the long run. Until then….libraries with Overdrive, etc.. still lookin’ good. ~

  9. I agree that Kindle’s Lending Library on its own is not going to have a huge impact on libraries, especially in New Zealand where I’m located.

    But this announcement will add to the perception by many members of the public that libraries are less and less relevant in today’s world. Why? Simply because whenever someone thinks of ebooks they think of Amazon, and not libraries – for both lending and purchasing. This is the case in New Zealand too, even though Kindles have only been on sale here since October 2011.

    You mention your amusement at Amazon promoting “You can borrow a new book as frequently as once a month”. I applaud them for promoting this (regardless of how silly it sounds). Why? Because they’re clearly communicating their offer. I’d struggle to find the borrowing period for library ebooks (and how to use them) so clearly communicated. Libraries are not trying to “sell what they have as best they can”.

    Yes, the Kindle Lending Library is not free and you do need a Kindle reader but in my view that’s the fine print, and how many members of the public do you know who read the fine print?

    In New Zealand we are starting (in December) a national tour to demonstrate and educate the public on library ebooks and how to download them, because if we don’t the library apocalypse will come much sooner than we think. Based on the number of library closures around the world I don’t think “libraries would still survive on the basis on access and instruction.”

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