The big news today is this:
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.